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Building Homes and Futures

unCommon Construction provides local high school students with a life-changing work experience.



Area high school students build resumés, and houses, with unCommon Construction.

The New Orleans Residential real estate market is thriving, with new construction popping up all over the city.

Among them is a listing for a home in the St. Roch neighborhood for a three-bedroom/two bath with 10-foot ceilings, recessed lighting, bamboo floors, a kitchen with eat-in bar, gas range and stainless steel appliances. This home’s master suite features a sleek bath and walk-in closet and an extra family room enjoys access to a covered back porch that looks out over a large, grassy fenced yard.

While it may sound like just another well-appointed family home, this property is different — it was constructed by local high school students.

The students were participants in unCommon Construction, a youth development non-profit that uses the build process to empower youth with skills and real work experience. unCommon Construction has built eight homes in nine semesters (including two homes with Habitat for Humanity, a tiny house on a mobile trailer) and hired more than 100 students, and they have earned more than $100,000 in pay and equity award scholarships since its beginning in 2015.

Students from different schools join a diverse team to earn hourly pay and school internship credit for building a house in a semester. Funded by the revenue from each project, apprentices also earn a matching “Equity Award Scholarship” for further education and industry certifications. Through more than 100 hours each semester, apprentices develop career awareness and exposure, technical and soft skills, and leadership abilities through this work-based learning experience in a real-world classroom.

”I wanted to create a program that equipped high school graduates with the skills and resources for the college or career path of their choice,” says unCommon Construction’s Founder, Aaron Frumin.

Once unCommon sells a home, it uses the proceeds to maintain funding for future acquisitions, new equipment and student stipends.

Simple beginnings In 2005, Frumin was a college dropout in the process of discovering himself. His involvement in community service began with a donation to the Hurricane Katrina relief effort. While on the phone with the Red Cross hotline to make a $25 donation, he realized he wanted to do more. By the end of the call, Frumin had signed on to a phone-line shift for the following day. A few months later, he traveled to New Orleans with the Red Cross effort, where he helped with bulk distribution of food, water, buckets, bleach and other essential items.

Later that year, still on his journey of self-discovery, Frumin took his first job in construction as a worker at a day labor company in the Reno-Lake Tahoe area. He soon discovered he enjoyed the physical labor and the deep satisfaction of putting in a hard day’s work.

“I was hungry for a challenge,” he said. “I had no skills and I even had to rent boots in order to work for $7 a day. Now we make sure our students have what they need to hit the ground with experience, hard and soft skills and steel-toed boots.”

Next up for Frumin was more disaster recovery work as he joined the AmeriCorps’ National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), where he used his new construction skills to help rebuild the Gulf Coast. His commitment deepened when he lead community volunteers, AmeriCorps, and partner families in rebuilding New Orleans as a house leader with New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity. He also found time to earn a degree in teaching from Tulane University and after that he spent three years working with Teach for America.

Frumin took all the skills, lessons, resources, ideas and knowledge of youth development that he gathered from all these experiences to create unCommon. Along the way he also discovered what he wanted to do with his life – community service. He believes unCommon can be one way to begin to solve some our community’s deep-rooted problems.


Photograph courtesy unCommon Construction
Since its launch in 2015, unCommon Construction has built eight homes in nine semesters and hired more than 100 students that have earned more than $100,000 in pay and equity award scholarships

Students need to be at least 16 years old and currently enrolled at a participating high school to complete the application process. They also need to commit to 10 hours a week – one day after school and all day on Saturday.

“Construction is the method we use to better prepare high schoolers for college and careers,” Frumin says. “There’s a lot of math, engineering and physics, setting a great foundation for any number of STEM jobs. Even more, by working on a diverse team throughout the build process, they gain leadership skills and are better prepared for any type of long-term career goal.”

“This program is so beneficial and it really did help me get my first job,” says high school senior at International High School of New Orleans, Keisa Brown. “I had something to share with potential employers. I could talk about things I’d done and show them my scorecards” (apprentices receive a “Hirability Scorecard” with each of their monthly paychecks that evaluates their progress). “Most importantly, I learned how to communicate with a lot of different people in a professional way. It also helps me stay engaged in something positive and is helping me build a financial background. I love the company.”

Through partnerships with local construction companies, training facilities and colleges, unCommon is able to offer youth the opportunity to more successfully transition from school to the workforce and/or post-secondary education.

“We help them build for themselves and the community,” Frumin says. “They are building as an investment in their future and the community’s future.”

The apprentices’ hourly pay teaches youth the value of their time, effort and newly acquired skills and experience. They earn more than minimum wage and also can receive promotions and bonuses each semester.

On Saturdays, apprentices are positioned as leaders of adult volunteers, comprised of college students, educators, industry professionals, employers, community partners and more. Together, they are tasked with completing an entire phase of construction in a single day through a high-energy, coordinated build experience.

During after school sessions, apprentices develop their sense of identity and team unity via leadership activities and industry exchanges with partners throughout the city. The “Framing Character” portion of the program engages apprentices in activities that focus on career exploration and personal identity. Each week, students participate in team building exercises, hear presentations from industry partners and go on field trips.

Frumin tells the story of Clarence, an apprentice who went for a visit to an architectural firm.

“While he was there he asked, ‘Is there a job where I can just draw buildings?’ One of the employees took him to his drafting table and you could see the light bulb go off in Clarence’s head.”

The program has been praised by local businesses in construction and other associated industries, such as real estate and architecture.

“What Aaron is doing is great because he gives youth jobs, experience, money and builds their confidence, says Melissa Gibbs, who directs business development and manages small and disadvantaged subcontractor outreach for her family business, commercial general building contractor Gibbs Construction. “These are things that help them begin to see a successful future for themselves.”

Just before this school year started, 18-year-old Terry Gerdes was eagerly awaiting getting back to the program. The senior at Renew Accelerated High School has been with unCommon for two years and has worked on six houses.

“You shouldn’t even ask me what I like about this program,” he says, “because I like everything. I’ve learned to be a leader and I’ve really learned that I can deal with hard times and still do my best at work. I would tell anyone about this program and I would say, ‘Boy, you don’t what to miss this ‘cause you need to get with it.”

Current Needs/Opportunities for Partnership Attend a Group Build Day: Groups consisting of at least 15 volunteers can pre-schedule a day with uCC apprentices. Builds are always on Saturdays during the school semester. Groups may consist of colleagues or peers as part of a company, class or organization’s volunteer day. You do not, however, have to be affiliated with a pre-existing group to arrange a day. Anyone willing and able to assemble a committed group of volunteers is welcome.

Next Build Day: Saturday, October 13, from 8:15 a.m. to 4 p.m.

This build is being hosted by unCommon and AIA New Orleans Center for Architecture and Design. To register or to get more information, visit AIAneworleans.org/event/uncommonconstruction

Become a Monthly Donor Help unCommon Construction serve up to 75 youth in its apprenticeship program per year by becoming a sustaining monthly donor for as little as $10 per month. A $15 monthly donation helps purchase personal protective equipment for a student and a gift of $100 buys a student a set of personal hand tools.

Shop on Amazon? Consider linking to uCC via Amazon Smile and .5 percent of every eligible purchase you make will support apprentices.

In Construction? Hire unCommon Construction apprentices to work on a build project at your school, business, residence or elsewhere in New Orleans. uCC will work with you to outline the scope and coordinate materials to make sure your project is ready to create a meaningful learning experience for local youth. Ideal projects include: painting, porches, doors and windows, fences and ramps, as well as home repairs.

Fundraising Efforts unCommon does not hold a formal gala or signature fundraising effort. However, throughout the year they do have small events to raise funds. Some also create fundraising efforts for them. For example, the Back to School Tool Drive, hosted by the Louisiana Associated General Contractors and The American Institute of Architects New Orleans, asks members to donate new or used construction tools. Suggested items for donations can be found on uCC’s Amazon Wish List.


A Good Match

FOR COMPANIES WHO…

want to make and share connections and resources with uCC. The organization is always looking for architects, engineers, educators, people in youth development, electricians, surveyors or anyone who can share their time, talents and experience to help youth achieve their goals. uCC wants four things for their apprentices: employment, opportunities, volunteers and mentors. If your company can offer any of those things, you’d be a good match.


(Left to right) Aaron Franklin-White, Project Coordinator; Aaron Frumin, Executive Director; Ian Houts, Program Leader; Jayd Hill, Volunteer & Community Coordinator

THE BASICS

unCommon Construction

Mission unCommon Construction uses the build process to empower youth to lead the workforce after high school or college.

Annual Budget Averages between $700,000 to $1 million (changes depending on the number of houses being built that year).

Ongoing Partnerships uCC works with a wide variety of industry professionals from construction companies to real estate agents and everything in between. Among parnering organizations are: Capital One, GPOA Foundation, Gibbs Construction, Concordia Architects, Trapolin-Peer Architects, Teach for America and Baptist Community Ministries.

info@unCommonConstruction.org
facebook.com/uCCNOLA
uncommonconstruction.org


“Construction is the method we use to better prepare high schoolers for college and careers,” Frumin says. “There’s a lot of math, engineering and physics, setting a great foundation for any number of STEM jobs. Even more, by working on a diverse team throughout the build process, they gain leadership skills and are better prepared for any type of long-term career goal.”

Making A Difference

Success of Services:

100%
of seniors participating in the program graduated on time

100%
of those graduates chose to continue their education within three months

Participants also report the following benefits of the program:

Received a better sense of what they’re good at

Were proud with how they performed in the program

Developed new skills that helped them succeed in the program

Improved their teamwork skills to work well with others

Developed better ways to solve problems when they face issues or setbacks

Developed time management skills in order to meet their deadlines

Feel their future is more hopeful after participating in this program


 

 
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