Michael “The Bricklayer” Benedek on Building (hopefully) the First of Many Schools

by Team Dayā Member Michael Benedek

The flight to Senegal for a Team Dayā school build with Jay Sears & Hasan Arik was a short flight at the end of a long journey that began years ago when I read about Jay Sears’ vision to give back and launch a charity— Team Dayā–backed by corporate and individual donors from the adtech / martech world to build schools in the developing world.

It Seemed Far Fetched

The vision spoke to me at the time but it seemed so theoretical and far-fetched—- how would I and others like me do something like that?  I was focused elsewhere–my work at Datonics, my family, my co-op board, and my involvement as a co-sponsor (the less important one) in launching a charter school in Manhattan–a well-intentioned project that ended up getting rejected by the State of NY’s bureaucratic, charter-granting body despite numerous meetings with state and local representatives, community board meetings, and more.

Education & My Family

The importance of equal access to education has always been top of mind for me. My grandparents, who had their later school-age years stolen from them, never attended college but made up for it with street smarts and ensured that their children, who grew up in Canada, went to college.

Mike talks about the purpose and meaning of the school build.

My father arrived in Canada as a teenager from Romania, speaking neither English nor French, but graduated with a PhD in engineering from McGill University about 10 years later.  My mother studied French in college & worked as a teacher in her early years; my wife taught in progressive schools in New York City & now runs a middle school in Manhattan; and my own company Datonics has played a leadership role with a charity called Futures and Options for many years–providing gifted and talented high school students from historically underrepresented communities with the opportunity to intern with and work for technology / financial services companies in New York City–opening students’ eyes to opportunities they might not have been aware of.  Education is and always will be part of my DNA.

Team Dayā 

When I read Jordan Mitchell’s heartwarming post about Team Dayā’s Nepal school build  and his sentiment that “I’m not sure I will ever find the words to describe the experience (and I tear up when I try), but I hope that everyone I know has a similar experience at some point in their lives ”, I knew this was something I had to do.

LUMA Meeting

Brickmaking with The Bricklayer

A bit before COVID-19 hit, I saw that Luma Partners was hosting a Team Dayā info session in New York led by Jay Sears.  I put that in my calendar, but work got in the way and I did not attend.  But I remembered meeting Jay at IAB Leadership Summit in Palm Springs a couple years prior and getting a great vibe, so I gave him a call and gave him my best pitch about why he should accept me as part of his team and let me get involved. 

Thankfully, he accepted me, telling me “Welcome aboard— as soon as you raise $10,000 you can go on a school build.”  And off to the races I went, during COVID-19, benefiting from generous corporate/personal donations from old friends, new friends, family, and from Datonics’ own adtech giveback initiative with agencies and brands that helped me reach our goal–but how were we going to build a school during COVID-19 in developing countries where most are unvaccinated?  The school build was inching closer but still seemed so far away!

Senegal Quick

In January 2022 I get a call from Jay–“Mike, our school building partner, buildOn, told me we may be able to build a school in Senegal starting in mid-March–are you in?  I want to get this done ASAP to build momentum and make up for lost time due to COVID-19–so that we can then do the next builds in Malawi & Guatemala.”  This is a man with a vision–he was planning for Senegal to get done as a path to the next two!  I loved it and said, “Let’s do it!”.

Only two months later, after countless vaccinations, multiple COVID tests & the promise of 2-3 tests more before we arrived to & during our time in the village–we met at JFK on a Friday night for our flight to Dakar.

Senegal Welcome

All Team Dayā members are required to dance. No experience is necesary.

Three days later, after receiving our names in Wolof (mine was “DIEN GAI”) along with valuable language/cultural instruction, we arrived in the community of Nguiddine Keur Sara in the Fatick region of Senegal accompanied by two translators, and were met by galloping horses, pick-up trucks with cheering children, and a parade of dancing women and children. There were drums & local dance moves, and a ceremony in honor of the school groundbreaking. The whole community (I would estimate 200+ adults, with 150+ children were at this celebration) then signed a covenant to build the school with us, and we delivered speeches of thanks in response to their speeches of welcome and thanks, putting the first shovels in alongside the Village chief, village imam, and women leaders. 

Team Dayā being greeted as we enter the village for the first time.

Our Days in Nguiddine Keur Sara Village

Over the rest of the week, we connected deeply with members of the community–a community without electricity or running water. We slept on the floor in a grain shed adjacent to their homes under a mosquito net (normally we would have stayed in their homes but to protect them from COVID-19, we stayed in the grain shed), walked through their fields, played soccer with their children (and I even taught them how to play some card games), danced to Senegalese music, and worked hand in hand with them, day in and day out, for five hours per day in 109 degree heat.

Days started with stretching and that led to brick-making, cement mixing, digging the foundations of the school and the latrines, and more. Like Jordan experienced in Nepal, we wore work gloves and earned blisters, while the community worked with their bare hands (with no blisters)!

Each afternoon we spent on cultural exchanges–meeting the Village Chief and elders, meeting the representatives of the women, meeting the principal & teachers, learning how to prepare millet, learning how to build a chicken coop, tame a bull, and just hanging out with the kids and their animals–donkeys, sheep, chickens, roosters.

What’s Next

My takeaways were like what Jordan experienced in Nepal. First, WOMEN RULE!!!!–the Senegalese women, dressed to kill, often with babies hanging from their arms (and breasts), outworked the men–mixing and carrying cement, rallying the men to work longer and harder, and dancing at the work site.   

The second key takeaway was–something that should be obvious to all–that money and material things do not bring happiness (though your donations do help build a school!). This community had very few things, yet they had everything they needed and were very happy. The only thing they lacked easy access to was “education”–with their kids walking 5 miles to school in some cases, and in other cases having classes in a thatched hut.

When it was time to say our goodbyes, the whole community again came together to dance and sing, and we all shed many tears that will bind us together forever. The world is a small place and while I arrived to give, I received far more in return–happiness and fulfillment that cannot be described.  

I pray that with the support of Team Dayā and our generous donors–you and others like you–Senegal was only my first school–Malawi, Nicaragua and Guatemala here we come. I can’t wait to get started with your help!

Mike’s remarks at our closing ceremony in Nguiddine Keur Sara

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