An Operation Breakthrough expansion from the east side of Troost Avenue to the west is about more than jumping across the street, said Mary Esselman. The move will literally bridge a racial and economic dividing line that has persisted for decades.
“Bridging Troost is not only a legacy to our founders, but is huge symbolically, as well as programmatically,” said Esselman, president and CEO of the nonprofit educational child care center for families in poverty. “We currently serve about 430 kids and the expansion will jump us up to over 700. That means every child who starts with us as a baby will actually be able to finish with us as a 14-year-old, knowing that they’ll pick a school in between, and we’ll be before and after, and during the summer.”
Operation Breakthrough purchased the former Jones department store on the northwest corner of 31st and Troost in 2017 with plans to renovate and connect the building — via an enclosed walkway over the street — to the center’s existing facility on the northeast corner at 3039 Troost Ave.
The new space is expected to ramp up Operation Breakthrough’s STEM efforts with new programming for both early learners and school-aged children — made possible by a $17 million capital campaign and challenge grants from the J.E. and L.E. Mabee and Hall Family Foundations that require at least $3 million in additional gifts and pledges.
“We’ve entered this phase of saying more than, ‘Hey, we want to make sure all of our kids can read,’” Esselman said. “If we’re truly committed to kids reaching their full potential, then we should be doing things that are more 21st century to complement.”
The center’s leader is perhaps most excited about a MakerVillage where children can explore the life sciences, learn the art of cooking, experiment with computer animation or motors, create their own projects with robotics, fabric, electricity, music and more.
“It’ll be an amazing space for kids to blossom and create,” she said.
Expansion also will mean boosting Operation Breakthrough’s ongoing mission to reach its students holistically. In addition to a gym for team sports and increased exercise, the former Jones building is expected to house health and wellness programs and a warehouse, where the nonprofit can distribute donated furniture and appliances to the families it serves.
Renovations are on schedule for the space to open in the fall, Operation Breakthrough said Tuesday. The impact of the expansion will be so phenomenal that the nonprofit must move quickly, Esselman said.
“Why wait? For me, I don’t want to lose another group of kids. In the summer, I have to say to 60 percent of the families, ‘You can’t stay right now because we don’t have space for you,’” she said. “Soon I’ll be able to say, ‘We have plenty of space and every child can continue.'”
Operation Breakthrough is planning a special announcement event to celebrate the expansion 11 a.m. Feb. 22 at 3039 Troost Ave., with Kansas City Mayor Sly James and other speakers.
“I’m happy that they’re doing well enough that they can make that kind of investment. It really helps to anchor that 31st and Troost corner,” said said Matt Nugent, a founding member of the Troost Coalition. “It’s really encouraging to see this kind of investment because it’s been very stagnant for a long time.”
Along with the ongoing capital campaign, Operation Breakthrough will need increased support from volunteers, Esselman said. Expanded programming means more opportunities for young professionals to come into the space to mentor and showcase their expertise in meaningful ways, she said.
“We want to get people to come in and not just think, ‘Oh, I’m going to sit and read with a child,’ but rather, ‘I’m going to sit with a child and we’re going to harvest some motors out of some old toys,’” Esselman said. “And if they haven’t done something like that before, that’s OK. They’re going to learn with the child.”
Learn more about Operation Breakthrough with the video below.