Operation Breakthrough: Changing Life Trajectories From Birth to Citizenship

12 Jan 2022

By: Tom Vander Ark, Rashawn Caruthers and Bill Nicely

Located in the heart of Kansas City, MO is a nonprofit organization dedicated to loving children and opening up their hearts to share what’s possible. Operation Breakthrough, a community partner serving kids from preschool through high school, is focused on the whole learner, the whole family and the whole community. Walking into the building and seeing a space alive with parents, learners, community members and healthcare professionals, the mission of providing a safe and loving environment for students in poverty rings true with every interaction.

What started as early learning and after school programming has grown into helping high school students continue to discover their interests. Recognizing that students needed support past age 14, Mary Esselman, President/CEO/Kid Whisperer, connected with partners to create The Ignition Lab. What was once a muffler shop and boarded up department store is now home to a human development center for elementary through high school students. The property was purchased by Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce and his Eighty-Seven & Running foundation. Other donors included Cargile, Honeywell and the Stowers Foundation.

Open to all students, elementary students and freshmen from Hogan Prep cycle through the Ignition Lab every day. With a capacity of 100 students per morning and afternoon sessions, students experience all of the programs at the beginning of the year and then narrow it down to what their focus will be for the first semester. During the semester, they are given space to stay in their current program for the next semester or choose a different focus. All of the programs are focused on real world learning and students see the connection between one program and another. Students are also learning from real world teachers that include a military cook/private chef, a Carnegie Mellon University mechanical engineer and a graphic artist.

Known as Ignition Lab Fellows, highly trained content specific professionals are on loan from the area corporations. Mary says, “The program really checks all the boxes. The fellows have an opportunity to give back to the community, our corporate partners fulfill their philanthropic goals and our kids get to learn from experts in the field.” Of equal importance is Mary’s ability to spot people who possess a real talent working with high need students. “It’s not just poverty our kids are experiencing, in many cases it’s some form of trauma as well.” For this reason, teachers and volunteers alike must possess the unique gift of deep empathy for all students and the grace to provide what they need when they need it. “I hire based on potential to interact with kids. I can tell if they have the right stuff.”

The confection of support services Operation Breakthrough provides to students and families might best be characterized as Wrap Around Services on steroids.  “If there is a need, we try to find a way for sustainable funding to provide it to our community.” As a result, all students receive free dental care at the onsite dental lab. Occupational and physical therapy along with speech and language therapy are provided for students in need. Partnering with Children’s Mercy Hospital, the in-house medical clinic supports not only to students, but family members and the community as space is available. On a tour of the various programs one would likely see the in-house food pantry, clothes closet, bread table for a quick grab and go and a sundry of other donated items as in free large carpet remnants to warm a cold bedroom floor. The goal is educating students, supporting their socio-emotional needs and ultimately breaking the cycle of poverty. As such, financial counseling and literacy is a part of this arsenal.

With over 196 employees, 250 volunteers and funding sources that include govermenal, individual, corporate and from nonprofit foundations, Operation Breakthrough is anything but a boutique organization. With an eye on long-term sustainability, the board of directors recently started an endowment with the hopes of someday relieving some of the time and effort focussed on annual fundraising. As CEO, Mary’s strategic focus is on assessing the diverse needs of every child and measuring outcome effectiveness to better tell their stories of success and make program changes when there isn’t. These are indeed worthy goals that will insure the success of future students, and cloning this dynamic adult inspiring, kid whispering leader wouldn’t hurt either.

Esselman says, “We’re just a not-for-profit,” but with a focus on early STEM, programming for students in poverty to become self-directed learners and responsive community services/resources, she and the Operation Breakthrough team are “just” sparking real world learning experiences that are changing lives.

Bill Nicely is the former Kearney School District Superintendent, and is now an education consultant for Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation Real World Learning Initiative and the Education Governance & Leadership Association.

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