Meet the woman who runs Operation Breakthrough

Mary Esselman had big shoes to fill when she took over the reins at Operation Breakthrough.

For almost 50 years, the organization has offered educational support to Kansas City schoolchildren. Inside its 131,000-square-foot campus, a dedicated team of staffers works with more than 500 students, most living below the poverty line.

Since taking over as CEO after the retirement of Sister Corita Bussanmas and Sister Berta Sailer, the nuns who founded the organization, Esselman has overseen an ambitious $17-million expansion that doubled the size of Breakthrough’s footprint by adding a second building on the opposite side of Troost Avenue connected by a skyway.

The new facility includes a STEM-focused center called the MakerVillage, where you’ll find children sewing pillows, building robots, baking cinnamon rolls and engineering an irrigation system for their garden.

▶︎ I tend to burn the candle at both ends. I get up before five most mornings and am known to send emails later than I should. With hundreds of children and families walking through the doors at Operation Breakthrough each morning, you never know what the day will hold, so getting organized before heading in is critical.   

▶︎ I walk into work thinking, “Ready or not, here I come.” No two days are alike at Operation Breakthrough. It’s like riding a roller coaster… You can always see the joy on the faces of the children as they discover new things but can equally feel the weight of not always being able to help everyone to the extent you would like.

▶︎ One of the favorite things in my office is a poster of Muhammad Ali. It states in big bold letters, “Impossible is nothing.” It is a reminder that no matter how difficult the challenges are, we can find a way to remove the barriers.

▶︎ Right now I’m reading Tinkering by Curt Gabrielson. It’s a great book about the long-term benefits that come from tinkering and making stuff as a child.

▶︎ The best advice I’ve ever received is: “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” It’s easy to talk around things, but in the end, people — your family, your friends, your team, your co-workers — want and need direct feedback.

▶︎ The grand opening of Operation Breakthrough’s expansion this past fall was one of the proudest moments of my career. The bridge across Troost and the expanded space to serve more children not only fulfilled a dream of the founders but allowed us to provide a whole new world of opportunity in STEM and the arts for the children and families we serve. There are labs for digital media, life sciences, and robotics and coding coupled with zones for construction and design, culinary arts, textiles and studio arts. I can’t wait to bring in a salad bowl and try out the many types of lettuce and greens they’re growing.

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