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STEM Education in Operation Breakthrough

By July 9, 2019General

At 31st and Troost lies a non-profit organization with a mission to support families living in poverty and help children develop to their greatest potential by providing them a safe, loving, and educational environment.  Operation Breakthrough has been the backdrop of the Kansas City community since 1971, when Sister Corita Bussanmas and Sister Berta Sailer, began the organization in response to the needs for daycare from families in the area.  The need has only grown over the years. What began with 4 babies and toddlers, has grown to include 265 kids ages 5-14 years, and 360 children from 6 weeks to 5 years old. 

Today Mary Esselman, CEO and director of Operation Breakthrough, and her team have a big job on their hands.  In 2018, Operation Breakthrough received a huge boost with a $17 million capital campaign.  The expansion ‘bridged’ Troost and beefed up their education program with STEM disciplines.  As I walked through the newest facility, I could sense the excitement coming from the students and faculty, alike.  What was once an old Jones Store, is now a bright and bold center that has been revamped into the future of learning.  The center includes MakerCity with Educational Zones including areas such as a Gymnasium, Yoga Studio, Library and MakerSpace.

The Educational Zones include:   

  • Life Science: Sciences such as biology and zoology where they have birds, fish and frogs. 
  • Digital media:  Includes a green screen, sound recording and equipment for filming. 
  • Studio Arts: The class uses mediums such as clay, they paint with natural light through their windows.
  • SmartLab:  Features fully integrated systems of hardware, software, online curriculum and assessment tools.  Activities such as FIRST Lego Robotics League, Coding, Pre-Engineering skills, Adobe and Photoshop. 
  • MakerSpace: Open-ended resources fill the room, including lessons on the science of flight.  Zone includes two wind tunnels and a wind table so the children can experiment with lift and drag similar to a NASA space.  
  • Fiber Arts: Textiles such as fashion design, sewing pillows, making candles, etc.
  • Construction: Construction prototyping.  First 2 weeks are safety lessons, then students move onto tools and projects with fabrications such as woodworking or laser cutting.  Students are working with MindDrive to build cars and drones. 
  • Launchpad: Launchpad is a Kindergarten classroom. A zone to help kids with reading, writing and science.  It’s a more controlled environment for the younger students, and helps them to develop socially and emotionally.
  • Culinary Arts: Test kitchen where students work with a professional chef, Dominque Allen.  Study the ‘science of bread,’ or ‘how chemistry works with gluten and/or pasta,’ and ‘How it changes a recipe/ratios/math.’ 

The after school program at Operation Breakthrough runs from 3-5:30 pm during the school year.  During the summer, certified teachers and zone leaders teach math, science and reading from a STEM perspective. 

Tyler Baker, Operation’s Community Engagement and Partnership Coordinator, informed me that at the age of 5, students get to cross over from Head Start to MakerCity, the headquarters of the school-age program.    “Kids who have been nurtured and loved with education and support services get to cross the bridge into opportunity,”  as they begin the process of being able to explore all the sciences. “We’re trying to create the most powerful kids in Kansas City, by using major STEM and 21st century learning.”  

The $17 million expansion was a giant leap for Operation Breakthrough, but with so many families in need, Operation Breakthrough’s fundraising for their children is ongoing.   Serving the children and families, where more than 80% of the enrolled families live below the federal poverty guidelines, has been a huge undertaking.  On average, 1 out of 5 students is homeless. 

Their facility not only supports an education center, but also resources for the entire family.  Operation Breakthrough offers parenting education classes and assists parents with resumes, GED classes and job searches.  A Food pantry and “Berta’s Boutique” are also available and aid families with food, household and clothing assistance.  In addition, Children’s Mercy Hospital provides a full-service clinic.  Operation Breakthrough not only has a full therapeutic team, but also partners with universities like Rockhurst to provide services like Occupational Therapy and Speech and Language, while UMKC School of Dentistry provides free cleanings and preventative care for students at Operation Breakthrough’s on-site clinic. 

Kansas City businesses have come to the assistance of Operation Breakthrough, using different fundraising opportunities.  One of the most well-known NFL football stars, Kansas City Chiefs tight end, Travis Kelce, and his foundation 87 and running, has been honored for his work with Operation Breakthrough.  Travis relayed to me that, “It’s been a pleasure of mine to raise money and see the smiles on these kids’ faces. I wanted to give to an organization that was helping kids in this type of way. To be able to support something as unique as the robotics team, it’s fascinating to me.”

There are many ways for anyone to get involved.  Donations, including monetary, household items and clothing, are highly appreciated as well as volunteering.  Many success stories from hundreds of past volunteers circulate the campus but one of the biggest obstacles for Operation Breakthrough is finding more volunteers with the availability to build long-term relationships with kids.  To learn more about ways to get involved visit Operation’s Breakthrough’s website here.

At the age of 13, state subsidy is cutoff and cannot continue at the center. Some students move into volunteering while others return at 18 and begin a career with the organization.  “One of the next step challenges is to look at how we can develop our programming so kids can continue on with us past 13.”  Partnering with area schools is a goal of Operation Breakthrough.  It allows the center to make sure their students’ needs are being met in elementary and middle school and tailor their programming to augment their schoolwork and boost their skills.  “We want to make sure that our kids are using the skills we are teaching them and we want to know, that as a faculty, what we’re doing at Operation Breakthrough is effective.”

Where does leadership at Operation Breakthrough hope to take the organization in 5-10 years?  Wherever the need is the most, that’s where you can find us.  I would love to see us continue to grow our footprint in KC. We have families that need us here so it’s important for us to be here for them.”



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