Operation Breakthrough is a Learning Haven in Kansas City

Operation Breakthrough offers disadvantaged kids hope for brighter futures.


   To find a nonprofit educational program for children that goes way beyond reading, writing and arithmetic, look no further than Kansas City’s Operation Breakthrough.

   Founded in 1971 by Sister Berta Sailer and Sister Corita Bussanmas, Operation Breakthrough is a haven of learning for more than 400 disadvantaged inner-city children, ages 6 weeks to 14 years old. In free daycare and before-and-after-school programs, the place is abuzz with activity and the acquiring of knowledge for young minds.

   Kids as young as 3 are taught technology skills like coding. A MakerSpace is designed to let kids tinker with, use or retool real materials like textiles, studio arts, ingredients for cooking and toys. A SmartLab allows kids to explore robotics, electronics and graphic arts.

   Kathy Ramirez, MakerSpace education coordinator, says the kids arrive eager to learn.

   “They come in and are so ready to explore,” she says. “They’re young innovators. They come in and build. They come in and create. They’re self-directed.”

   Jad Rowles, SmartLab coordinator, says kids learn the basics in coding, graphic design, engineering, web design and animation.

   “We’ve taken a lot of our kids who have a harder time socially and emotionally, and we’ve brought them into the classroom and they’re much more engaged when they have a project they’re interested in that’s more technical,” he says. “That seems to build self-esteem and helps them stay focused.”

   Operation Breakthrough strives to do everything it can to make sure its kids have every opportunity to be successful. More than 87 percent of the enrolled families live below federal poverty guidelines, most far below them. Most are headed by single women in low-paying jobs. Seventy percent of the families earn less than $12,000 annually. About 20 percent of the children are homeless or near homeless.


Operation Breakthrough Kansas City


    But none of that matters when the kids are at Operation Breakthrough, where they work on creative thinking, communication, productivity and digital literacy.

    “Nationally, less than 50 percent of children in families living in poverty will enter kindergarten ready,” says Mary Esselman, the nonprofit’s chief executive officer who took over the helm when the sisters retired several years ago. “Here, for the last two years, we’ve had over 90 percent.”

    Making sure every single child makes every single milestone is imperative. Developmental and cognitive skill, literacy and language learning start at day one. Free health and dental care, and therapy services are offered, too.

   “We’ve had lots of kids who have experienced trauma,” Esselman says. “Just in the last 18 months, we’ve had 20 children who have lost a parent, the majority to gun violence. When that happens, we’re able to start that system of support for the whole family. We have a child therapist and have the ability to really work with the whole family. We do a lot of preventive intervention.”

   To that end, Operation Breakthrough offers much more than learning opportunities.

   “That’s what was amazing about the sisters,” Esselman says. “They realized 46 years ago that you couldn’t just focus on the child. You had to focus on the whole family. It’s what you still see today.”

   Wrap-around services include a family nurturing program that offers classes on child development and household management, support groups on child rearing, and five family advocates on staff who work individually with parents to create the best possible environment for their child.

   Accomplishments are impressive for the 2016-17 program. For example, Operation Breakthrough’s board agreed to move forward with a $12 million capital campaign to expand programming to 80 additional preschoolers, 210 additional school-agers and the children’s families. In addition, $8.6 million has been raised or pledged to date, with construction set to begin Dec. 1 for the expansion.  Moreover, more than 50 percent of Operation Breakthrough parents participated in Operation Connect, a 12-week parent education course offered in the evenings twice a year.

    Many things at Operation Breakthrough bring Esselman inspiration.

   “I love watching the kids grow,” she says. “You see them blossom every day. I love the families. We just see so many special moments for families and having a system that the community supports, where we can really meet not only our educational needs but social services and health. All of those together are what makes Operation Breakthrough successful.”


Operation Breakthrough Kansas City


   Chris Waxter is a 30-year-old support analyst for Cerner Corporation who says he owes his life to Operation Breakthrough. He spent almost 10 years of his childhood at the nonprofit early learning center near 30th Street and Troost Avenue in Kansas City and says without it, he’d be dead or in jail. In fact, he even lived with Sisters Berta and Corita.

    “It makes my heart smile that they take the average student and turn them out to be great human beings,” Waxter says. “They saved my life, and gave me a chance in this world to be a better man.”

   Waxter never has forgotten the kindness the two sisters have shown him, visiting them every day in their retirement home. He can’t thank them enough for the opportunities their care has given him.

   “They have two of the biggest hearts I’ve ever seen or known,” he says. “They just have a pure joy and love for their fellow humans. They never ask for you to give anything back.”

   To learn more about Operation Breakthrough, visit operationbreakthrough.org.

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