Chance Encounter Off Bourbon Street Leads To $300K Donation For Local Nonprofit
Philanthropist Brook Smith signs over a check for $300,000 to unCommon Construction. People behind the check include (L - R): Aaron Frumin, executive director of uCC, Councilmember Jared Brossett “District D” and Josh Schoop, uCC board member.
Kentucky native Brook Smith, the president of Smith Manus, an Acrisure partner company and one of the largest surety bonding providers in the United States, said he met Aaron Frumin in a dive bar off of Bourbon Street.
There, Frumin told Smith about the local nonprofit he co-founded, unCommon Construction (uCC), a selective apprenticeship program where students from four different New Orleans high schools join a diverse team to earn hourly pay and school internship credit for building a house from start-to-finish in a semester.
After hearing more about Frumin’s passion for using construction as a teaching tool for the students he serves, Brook and his wife Pam immediately committed to getting involved with uCC because they said they believed in the need for more real-world learning opportunities.
That commitment resulted in a $300,000 donation given last Saturday during a uCC weekend homebuilding construction project in the Upper 9th Ward.
“From my wife Pam's perspective, as a prior primary educator, her interest in unCommon Construction centers around the curiosity of applying innovative approaches to teaching outside the classroom, with the real world being the ultimate classroom,” said Smith. “Both of us are thankful to be in a position to provide a significant funding source for unCommon Construction.”
“Building houses. Framing character.” That’s the motto for unCommon Construction, that aims to give high school students high energy, impactful construction experiences that develop them into team oriented, resourceful leaders to lead them along the college or career path of their choice.
“In the last year, we’ve developed unCommon Construction from an idea into a thoughtful and reliable program with help from accelerators 4.0 Schools and Propeller,” uCC co-Founder and Executive Director Frumin said. “Up to this point, we’ve been able to remove the up-front cost of construction by partnering with our friends at New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity. Through the generosity of Brook and Pam Smith, we will be able to take unCommon Construction's growth, impact and financial sustainability to the next level by building a house to sell in the market.”
The organization currently offers area students 3 opportunities:
• Apprenticeships – Through after school and weekend sessions, high school students from diverse neighborhoods and schools build a house from start to finish over the course of 4 months. In this selective program, students earn weekly pay and high school credit while developing transferrable job skills, and gaining valuable experience and leadership skills.
• Pop-Up Shop Class – To spark further interest in construction and involve more students in the programs, uCC provides services to schools in the form of a “Pop-Up” shop class. During these sessions, uCC staff facilitates hands on, engaging construction experiences and classes for students on the school’s campus. Examples from previous sessions include birdhouses, sawhorses, benches and flower boxes.
• Post-Secondary Placement And Recruiting – uCC reps said they excel at providing students with high quality training and exposure to the construction industry and beyond. Through partnerships with local construction companies, training facilities and colleges, uCC provides participants with the opportunity to more successfully transition from school to the workforce and/ or post-secondary education.
“When something like unCommon Construction crosses your path – whether it be on Bourbon Street or Main Street – in whatever way you're capable, support it with both your means and your time, while also involving your family and friends,” donor Smith said. “We're the thankful ones for this great opportunity to support the innovator that is unCommon Construction. We clearly see the scalability of this organization beyond its start in the great city of New Orleans.”
“Brook and Pam saw unCommon Construction's potential early, and are making it possible for us to apply everything we've learned over our last year to achieve long-term financial sustainability,” Frumin said. “We are extremely grateful for their investment in our organization and looking forward to the additional opportunities it will create for our apprentices.”
Collectively, uCC’s co-founders said they have worked in dozens of schools, managed more than 100 construction-based projects and leveraged thousands of unskilled volunteers – all while creating a sense of accomplishment and community along the way.
uCC’s Frumin said he dropped out of college and responded to Hurricane Katrina with the Red Cross. Later that year, he said he became the least skilled worker at a day labor company working in construction. He eventually started leading volunteers, AmeriCorps and partner families in rebuilding New Orleans with Habitat for Humanity. Frumin returned to college at Tulane University, and as a Teach for America member, he said he worked to bridge the gap between his students’ experience and his own.
“What I loved about working at Habitat was teaching people, so I became a teacher with Teach for America,” Frumin said. “But what I hated about being a teacher were the walls of my classroom, so we created a classroom that didn’t have walls at unCommon Construction. Instead, our kids build them on the first day of school.”
uCC co-Founder and Operations Director Aron Michalski said he attended a rural public high school that had a strong vocational training program where he learned how to work with his hands. After graduating from Haverford College with a degree in Astrophysics, he joined AmeriCorps and for 6 years worked in California, Mississippi and Louisiana with Habitat for Humanity, KaBOOM! and YouthBuild.
Through his most recent work managing operations for schools in New Orleans, Michalski said he now brings more choices, access and opportunities to New Orleans’ youth.
“We’re building unCommon Construction because of the obvious need for it,” Frumin said. “Statistics show that Career Technical Education students graduate at a higher rate, are more likely to continue their education and are better prepared to enter the workforce. In fact, 81% of high school dropouts say that relevant, real world learning opportunities would have kept them in school.”
“The unCommon Construction experience taught me how I have to do my part and be reliable to my team,” Aisha Holmes, a uCC apprentice and senior at International High School, said. “It has caused many opportunities and experiences that I will never forget.”
For more information visit www.uncommonconstruction.org
(L - R) De'Shawn Burnett, student apprentice with uCC, Aaron Frumin, uCC executive director, Councilmember Jared Brossett “District D,” Josh Schoop, uCC board member and Brook Smith.
Students from four different high schools come together to build a house from start to finish over the course of a semester.
A weekend homebuilding construction project with unCommon Construction in the Upper 9th Ward on Saturday, February 20, 2016.