Construction Boss Gives Students Jobs and Builds Houses for No Profit: This 'Changed My Life'
"There’s more math, science, reading, engineering, art, science and social skills in one day on a build site than most professions experience in one year," says Aaron Frumin
Watching TV news coverage of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, Aaron Frumin reflexively picked up the phone to make a $25 donation to the Red Cross — just like he did after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and after the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami on Dec. 26, 2004.
Chatting with the Red Cross representative, Frumin asked how he could volunteer. The next day, he was helping people find hotel rooms near his family’s home in Encinatas, California. That October, he moved to New Orleans to help the Red Cross give out blankets and food and teddy bears.
Earlier in 2005, Frumin had left college at U.C. Davis just before graduating, searching for a more purpose-driven life.
“I didn’t drop out because I was underperforming or my grades were bad — I was going to graduate early — but I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Frumin, now 35, tells PEOPLE. “I was feeling a little lost and disconnected; I wanted to find something to feel purposeful and feel like I mattered.”
After Katrina, he got a job working construction for about seven months. “I fell in love with the mental and physical rigor of working,” he says.
He joined AmeriCorps, then spent three years building 100 houses in New Orleans with Habitat for Humanity. He finished his undergraduate degree at Tulane University, then worked for Teach for America in Colorado.
Combining everything he did in the past 10 years, Frumin returned to New Orleans and founded unCommon Construction in April 2015, launching a program where high school students build houses, learn job skills and earn scholarship money.
The non-profit is a licensed, insured contractor, and the one-story single family homes they build — a mix of green, energy-efficient structures and affordable housing — are a sold at market value.
“They are producing a high-quality product that sells competitively,” Frumin says. “We have a pretty good record of selling the houses. That’s a testament to what kids are capable of.”
Frumin works with 75 students per school year from six local high schools. The students build a house in a semester and receive school internship credit — but also get paid more than minimum wage.
“We’re a workforce,” Frumin says. “We don’t think of ourselves as a charity.”
If apprentices have perfect attendance, they receive a $50 bonus. And if they show up more than 85 percent of the time, they earn equity in the house they’re building, which goes to their equity award scholarship. In the past four years, 135 students have been through the program.
Scribbled on the walls of the construction sites are inspirational quotes. “The house is our curriculum, it’s our lesson plan,” Frumin says. “There’s more math, science, reading, engineering, art, science and social skills in one day on a build site than most professions experience in one year… If you’ve got your head down, and you’re working and you see a Martin Luther King Jr. quote that says, ‘All labor is valuable,’ it’s just better than if you look up and see a blank stud. We go an extra step to create an environment of togetherness and success and motivation and encouragement.”
On Saturdays, students work at the job site. After school, students work on “Framing Character,” doing team-building and leadership training.
“It’s a different spin than, ‘Let’s teach people construction,’ ” says philanthropist Brook Smith. “It’s more thoughtful.”
Smith, 52, met Frumin in a bar on Bourbon Street in November 2015. Smith was in town for an Emeril Lagasse Foundation fundraiser and killing time before flying home to Louisville, Kentucky.
“Aaron made an impression on me,” Smith says. “I just felt like he had honesty and passion and intelligence…He adapts and continually refines what his program is. He’s just a great guy.”
Smith loved Frumin’s project so much that he personally donated $300,000 to the non-profit in February 2016 and has remained a mentor and advisor.
“It’s not all about just how good you use a hammer — it’s how you’re interacting with someone else and thinking ahead and strategy,” Smith says. “The organization sets up ownership and demands respect.”
The non-profit has broken even on every house.
“When you stand inside one of our houses, you can’t really tell what was done by teenagers and what was done by adults,” Frumin says.
Hunter Allums, 20, thought he was raising his hand for a volunteer project when a study hall teacher mentioned unCommon in his junior year of high school. Then he received his first paycheck. “That’s when I really knew I was going to stick with it,” Allums says.
Allums thought about being a lawyer or a politician, but he didn’t love school and he really didn’t want to go to college. He became a crew leader at unCommon Construction, building a tiny house one summer, and three-bedroom, two-bath houses during the school year. He learned to keep working, even if the heat was unrelenting in the summer or his hands were cold in the winter.
“They taught me how to push through,” he says of Frumin’s non-profit. “It taught me how to work and operate on a team. And it taught me to how to lead a team.”
Allums used the equity scholarship he earned to help pay for books and dues when he joined the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers IBEW-Local 130 as an apprentice.
“A lot of other apprentices in my class have gotten laid off or moved or transferred around,” he says. “I’m doing better because of what I learned at unCommon.”
After years building houses, Allums just bought his own house in New Orleans’ Hollygrove neighborhood in September.
“It definitely changed my life,” he says. “Those two years I was with unCommon really prepared me for what was coming.”