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Class Is in Session: Three Spirit Employees Swap Their Kansas Workplace for an African Village for One Week

Spirit AeroSystems recently partnered with GE Aviation to send three employees on a life-changing trip to Senegal, Africa. James Christian, Whitney Franklin and Mitch Lindsay represented Spirit on a buildOn trip to construct a school for a village in Senegal and immerse themselves in the local community. They traveled from a variety of teams across the business. Mitch is a 777 team lead, James is a mechanic on the 737 41 Section, and Whitney works in Marketing and Communications. Whitney and Mitch also attended a conference in the U.S. to learn more about buildOn opportunities closer to home. Here’s a glimpse into their buildOn experience by Whitney Franklin.

Salam Malikum from James, Whitney, and Mitch!

When we were selected to represent Spirit AeroSystems on a buildOn trip, we knew it would be a life-changing opportunity to make a difference and better understand educational needs around the globe. But we didn’t know how much we would fall in love with Senegal! It was a long journey to get there – around 18 hours one way – but the beauty of the 3 a.m. sunrise and country as we landed in Dakar was worth the trip.

After all the layovers and a full day of traveling, still running on adrenaline, we arrived! We went through customs, grabbed our bags and were greeted by our Trek Leader, Celestina Agyekum. We drove on a bus into the city and stopped for lunch in downtown Dakar at Caesar’s Lounge and Cafe. Who would’ve thought our first meal in Senegal would be a burger and fries?

After lunch, Celestina took us to see a big market downtown where Senegalese locals buy their fresh produce, grocery shop and sell their artwork and traditional clothing. During our walk, we stopped by an amazing mural of the hand-carved mask; what a unique site to see.

Heading to Kaolack (Hotel Relaīs)

We were thankful for the lunch and travel break because we loaded back onto the bus and drove 4 hours to Kaolack, a city in Senegal 30 minutes from our village, to stay our first night. Assuming our hotel would be similar to our rural surroundings, our jaws dropped when we pulled up to the most beautiful hotel resort. How could this beautiful paradise be in the middle of one of the poorest countries in the world? It was a blessing to stay there for a night and the scenery was beautiful. We had dinner as a group and tried local dishes like Yassa Poulet (chicken, rice and sautéed onions) and Supreme de Volaille Aux Champignons (chicken, rice, sautéed potatoes and mushroom sauce). The food was amazing!

Traveling to Ndodj Village

We drove 30 minutes to the Ndodj village the next morning and we were welcomed by villagers on horses and the sounds of drumming and clapping. As we stepped off the bus, the sight of bright colors and the sound of drumming overwhelmed our hearts. The villagers surrounded us in a big circle to dance, clap and celebrate our arrival for the welcoming ceremony.

The chief of the village, Per Jobe, greeted us and thanked us for leaving our homes and families to visit, grow, build relationships and build the school for the community. Everyone signed a buildOn covenant, an agreement between the villagers and us, and we were introduced to our host families. After the welcoming ceremony, we walked to our “headquarters” where we had our first meal in the village, cooked by our two Senegalese chefs, Naffe and Maria Tu. After dinner, we headed back to our host families to shower and prepare for the next day.

A typical day in the village

We woke up early, got dressed and walked 10-15 minutes to breakfast at headquarters. The first day, we enjoyed a vegetable omelet (with peas, carrots and lima beans) and another day we had donuts and fruit. Each day after breakfast we had a language lesson with John and Isabel, who were our Senegalese translators during the trek. The two dialects most commonly spoken in our village were Wolof and Seerer. We focused on speaking Wolof with our host families.

After our language lesson, we set out for the worksite. We broke ground the first day and began working on the foundation of the school. We broke out into several stations: brick forming, rock smashing, rebar, and pick axing and shoveling the foundation. With temperatures in Senegal ranging from 110-115 degrees Fahrenheit and dry, we only worked 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. each day.

After working throughout the morning, we headed back to headquarters for lunch. One afternoon we had homemade vegetarian pizza with French fries and another afternoon we had Fatiya, homemade couscous and a vegetable medley with a tomato sauce. All of the food in the village was vegetarian and delicious.

After lunch, one of us led a group discussion topic. Our topics throughout the trip were first impressions of the village and the people, culture differences for U.S. Americans vs. Senegalese, what is poverty, and gender roles. Then we had time we had time to spend with our host families. We showed our families how to play board games like Jenga, how to jump rope, and how to play hopscotch. The remaining time was spent learning how to do house chores and practicing the local language. In the evenings there were social events. We had a soccer game, a wrestling match and open dialogue gender talk.

It’s so hard to say goodbye.

On our final evening in the village, we had a closing ceremony where we celebrated the young boys in the village that were of age (10 years old) to be circumcised and then danced all night long. Our host families dressed us up in traditional Senegalese attire and we took family photos.

After the closing ceremony, we spent our final hours with our families and presented them with parting gifts. Most of us left the games we played with our host families, school supplies, personal family photos and more. There wasn’t a dry eye in the village as we gave hugs and said our final goodbyes. Not only had we embraced the culture and lifestyle of our families in the village, but we built life-changing relationships that will live on forever more. Jerejef!

Class is in session in Ndodj, Senegal

The school we helped build is now complete and 115 students (51 boys and 64 girls) will soon be attending classes! We’re so thankful for the collaboration between Spirit and GE Aviation to support Ndodj, and for the opportunity to build friendships around the world. Mitch and Whitney also attended a conference in the U.S. to learn more about buildOn opportunities closer to home. To learn more about buildOn’s mission and how you can get involved, visit

Left to right – buildOn Co-founder Marc Friedman, Mitch, Whitney and buildOn Founder Jim Ziolkowski
Left to right – buildOn Co-founder Marc Friedman, Mitch, Whitney and buildOn Founder Jim Ziolkowski

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