Mary Esselman: CEO of Operation Breakthrough

Operation Breakthrough provides a safe haven for over 700 kids aged 6 weeks - 18 years everyday. 80% of the families they serve live off $12,000 or less annually. From education, to emergency services, to parent programming, Operation Breakthrough does all they can to make sure every kid has the support they need. Their holistic approach allows Operation Breakthrough to have a tangible impact on kids and families as they work their way through financial and emotional hardship.

Can you tell me about the kids you serve?


We have over 700 kids who walk in our doors every morning. At any given time, 20% of our kids are homeless and a third are without utilities. Not knowing when they will be able to eat or wash their clothes is a reality many of our families face. The ACEs study looks at adversity people face. ACEs says 20% of people have faced four or more adversities in their lives. For us, 45% of our families have faced four or more adversities. If we don’t step in and mitigate, the children end up on the same path as the parents. Our goal is to help children meet developmental milestones so that they can excel in school. All our families have access to social workers, child therapists, a clothing closet, a food pantry, and more.


How do you support both kids and adults at Operation Breakthrough?


We are a two generation model, meaning we serve children and parents. 97% of our parents don’t have access to healthcare. We have a health and dental clinic on site which makes a huge difference in developing positive health habits for parents and kids. Parents need a network of support and we help them get that with our free programs. They can get help with things like social services, case management, goal setting, financial literacy, interview skills, and personalized learning. For a family to be stable, the parents need to be supported as much as the kids. We put the child at the center of the program so that they can get to school prepared. Our interventions can take what is toxic for a child and make it a tolerable situation.


What is the Ignition Lab and how did you come up with the idea?


Travis Kelce from the Kansas City Chiefs has been a big supporter of us and helped launch this program. He noticed that kids don’t have access to programs here past age 14. Now, we provide workforce development for 200 high school students. The students learn about the options we offer and rank their choices of what they want to study. It can be robotics, coding, film production, graphic design, culinary arts, computer technology, and more. It helps kids figure out what they want to focus on in college or have a more technical path. Ignition Lab also has an internship program so students can make some money as well. At the end of each semester, they do a capstone project to talk about what they learned and how it fits into their future. It’s amazing to see the progress they’ve made in 9 months.


What is your favorite part of your job?


I love watching the kids grow and excel. There’s a lot of joy in seeing kids excited about learning. I’ve been an educator for over 30 years, and the idea that we can send over 90% of our kids to school ready is amazing. The trajectory from cradle to career is real and school preparedness is huge in determining long term success. It’s amazing to see our community come together around those who are vulnerable and lift them up.