Operation Breakthrough, Inc.

Kansas City, MO   |


Operation Breakthrough's mission is to help children who are living in poverty develop to their fullest potential by providing them a safe, loving, and educational environment. The Center also strives to support and empower the children's families through education, advocacy, referral services, and emergency aid. Our primary goal at Operation Breakthrough is to make sure every child is ready to succeed in school, regardless of family social-economic status or other adversity. We work to address their myriad needs through innovative educational programming, early therapeutic intervention, and comprehensive services for the children’s families, including ongoing assistance with housing and employment, emergency needs, crisis management, adult mental health services and parenting education.

Notes from the nonprofit

In September 2021, Operation Breakthrough expanded its school-age programming to include the Ignition Lab, which provides workforce development and entrepreneurship opportunities for 50 high school students as they aged out of the before-/after-school and summer programs. Also included in programming are 175 students from two area high schools. The Ignition Lab opened in a renovated muffler shop and features flexible bays where high school students experience real-world learning in co-working, multimedia production, makerspace, tech, digital/electronics, culinary arts, automotive/engineering/welding and other emerging STEM priorities. New construction was added for 2,250-square-feet of complementary metal buildings to house arts, green tech, additive manufacturing, fabrication, and machinery. A free-standing food truck will soon have access to Operation Breakthrough’s fully-equipped, health-approved kitchen and its culinary arts program.

Ruling year info


President & CEO

Ms. Mary Esselman

Main address

3039 Troost

Kansas City, MO 64109 USA

Show more contact info

Formerly known as

St. Vincent's Family Service Center



NTEE code info

Kindergarten, Nursery Schools, Preschool, Early Admissions (B21)

Family Services (P40)

Youth Development Programs (O50)

IRS filing requirement

This organization is required to file an IRS Form 990 or 990-EZ.

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Programs and results

What we aim to solve

SOURCE: Self-reported by organization

The odds of children living in poverty entering kindergarten ready to learn is 1 in 4 (Bridgespan Group), leaving too many children at risk of lacking the skills to meet critical benchmarks essential for their long-term academic and economic success. According to the U.S. Department of Education (2015), children born into poverty are at a much higher risk of disadvantaged health, behavior, and skills. In its report, “A Matter of Equity Preschool in America in 2015,” the Department of Education reports that 6 in 10 children start school a year or more behind. The Bridgespan Group’s report, “Achieving K‐Readiness for All Children,” also found that children in poverty make up the vast majority of students who are assessed as not ready for kindergarten. The research concludes that students who start school ready to learn are more successful in grade school and less likely to drop out in high school.

Our programs

SOURCE: Self-reported by organization

What are the organization's current programs, how do they measure success, and who do the programs serve?

Early Childhood Education

Accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, Operation Breakthrough’s Early Childhood Education program provides hands-on learning experiences, supportive teacher interactions and language-rich environments for more than 400 children from 6 weeks to 5 years old.  Developmentally-appropriate programming is guided by Head Start and NAEYC with the goal of preparing children for success in school. The program operates weekdays from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. to support parents who are working or going to school. Our interdisciplinary model – partnering education, clinical and social services to support the whole child/whole family – is designed to ensure children’s academic success and healthy social-emotional development in a nurturing home environment. Developmental assessments are conducted twice a year so that those experiencing delays can receive early interventions as needed and that education staff can tailor instructional plans to meet each child’s needs.

Population(s) Served
Infants and toddlers
Economically disadvantaged people

The purpose of Operation Breakthrough’s School-Age Village/MakerCity program is to provide a safe environment and high-quality educational care in the out-of-school hours for 350 at-risk children from 5 to 14 years old. During the school year, the first 45 minutes after children arrive from school is devoted to homework help, reading, and math. During the summer,  teachers facilitate an intensive reading program that runs from 8:30 – 11:30 every morning. In addition, our MakerCity program is designed to promote students’ interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) subjects. In addition to supporting children's academic success, Operation Breakthrough is committed to enriching the lives of our children through programs that teaches self-discipline, fosters trusting relationships with peers and adults, and promotes positive character development. Mental health and behavioral therapists work onsite with children who have persistent behavior/emotional problems.

Population(s) Served
Children and youth
Economically disadvantaged people

Our Social Services program helps families strengthen parenting skills, stabilize their home environment, and improve overall family functioning.  Six MSW-level case managers, called Family Advocates, and two managers work with parents/caregivers to provide crisis counseling, housing and employment assistance, and intensive case management to help them regain economic stability.   We also provide emergency assistance to those in need, including food, clothing, furniture and household supplies, and utility and rent assistance to families with children enrolled at the Center. Family Advocates encourage parents and families to participate in cooking classes, such as the Friday Lunch Bunch and during Operation Connect sessions on select Thursday evenings. They also assist parents to develop employment and personal finance skills.

Population(s) Served
Economically disadvantaged people

All children receive regular exams and treatment for illness or injury in our on-site Children's Mercy pediatric clinic, along with referrals to specialists as needed. Families also receive medical education to help them make appropriate health care decisions. In addition, all children ages 3 and older receive on-site dental screenings and follow-up treatment as needed. Children needing speech therapy or occupational therapy to overcome developmental delays receive weekly on-site services, with individual treatment plans and regular assessments. Children eligible for Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) through Missouri First Steps or the local school district receive individualized case management and family advocacy surrounding special education law and policies. Families are also connected to appropriate outside service providers as needed and given high quality follow-up for services received at the Center, at school, or at home.

Population(s) Served
Economically disadvantaged people

Our Mental Health staff includes three full-time child/youth therapists, who work with children dealing with issues of family violence, abuse or other trauma in individual or group therapy sessions.  A Music Therapist provides interventions in our infant-toddler classrooms to promote self-regulation and pre-literacy skill development. Children from 4-13 also receive Second Step bullying prevention sessions that focus on positive relationships and communications with peers.  In addition to therapeutic services for children, two full-time licensed adult/family therapists work with parents/caregivers in individual or group therapy sessions to provide emotional support and help alleviate the effects of chronic stress and/or unresolved childhood traumas.  Staff therapists are supported by a clinical director, assistant clinical director and data manager.

Population(s) Served
Economically disadvantaged people

Where we work


National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) - 5 Year Accreditation 2015

National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) -- 5-Year Accreditation 2020

Missouri Accreditation of Programs for Children and Youth 2020


Capstone Award 2019

Kansas City Business Journal

Cornerstone Award -- Finalist 2019

Economic Development Council of Kansas City, MO

Philly Gold Award--Video/Long 2017

Nonprofit Connect

Our Sustainable Development Goals

SOURCE: Self-reported by organization

Learn more about Sustainable Development Goals.

Goals & Strategy

SOURCE: Self-reported by organization

Learn about the organization's key goals, strategies, capabilities, and progress.

Charting impact

Four powerful questions that require reflection about what really matters - results.

Despite the odds for children in poverty nationally to start kindergarten ready to learn, over 90% of Operation Breakthrough’s graduating preschool students have tested 'ready for kindergarten' four years in a row, nearly double the rate cited by the Department of Education in its 2015 report. Our primary goal at Operation Breakthrough is to make sure every child is ready to succeed in school, regardless of family social-economic status or other adversity. We work to address their myriad needs through innovative educational programming, early therapeutic intervention, and comprehensive services for the children’s families, including ongoing assistance with housing and employment, emergency needs, crisis management, adult mental health services and parenting education. Our overall goal is to move families forward on a path to greater stability so their children have a firm foundation for success in school and in life.

Another goal for Operation Breakthrough is to develop and nurture children’s interest in STEM fields and equip them with 21st Century skills at an early age. It is widely acknowledged that by the time students enter high school, most have self-identified as not interested in STEM subjects. To change this trajectory and empower the children enrolled in Operation Breakthrough’s School-Age Program to build 21st Century skills and prepare them to compete in a global economy, we have launched a Twilight STEM program. This program engages children in activities such as coding, programming and circuitry to develop and enhance 21st Century skills like problem-solving, communication, creativity, cooperation and digital literacy. The program builds on the curriculum and activities for school-age students during before- and after-school hours by offering them during “twilight” hours -- evenings, weekends, or school holidays. Activities include experiential field trips, participation in clubs, regional/national robotics competitions, and engagement with other youth-focused organizations.

The Twilight STEM program builds on the research of high-quality out-of-school programs in STEM and the work of the Real World Learning Task Force sponsored by the Kauffman Foundation to cultivate critical attributes children need be ready for the future. Students will:
• Serve as change agents in their own lives and communities.
• Develop the ability to learn, thrive, think, contribute, and relate.
• Earn critical market value credentials needed for success in the workforce.

Key strategies/activities in 2019 included:
• Early Stem: We piloted a variety of new programs that will help our preschool children meet or exceed developmental milestones for school readiness with demonstrated problem solving, cooperation and digital literacy skills. We strongly believe in the importance of MAKING and early STEM for fostering the creativity and confidence children need to be successful at school and to become agents of change in their personal lives and in their communities.

• MakerCity: Operation Breakthrough’s before/after-school & summer program, MakerCity, goes far beyond the basic needs of helping students build strong academic skills in reading and math. It incorporates 21st Century skill building and STEM into every facet of learning. Through our ten interactive zones, nearly 350 students, ages 5-14, learn to think critically, collaborate with each other, and engage in real-world problem solving. In MakerCity, students explore science and math in 10-week cycles, through applied technology and the arts, while building connections to other academic subjects.

In addition, we offer a wide range of support services to children and families, including:
• USDA-approved food program, providing hot breakfasts, lunches and an afternoon snack 5 days a week;
• On-site pediatric medical care, including immunizations, health screenings, and treatment for illnesses and injuries in a clinic operated by Children's Mercy Hospital;
• On-site preventive and corrective dental care through a partnership with the UMKC School of Dentistry;
• Play therapy and other therapeutic interventions for children facing issues of family violence or abuse offered onsite by three staff therapists;
• Psychological consultations as needed through our partnership with Children’s Mercy’s Behavior Psychology Department;
• On-site occupational and speech therapy for kids with developmental delays, provided by staff occupational therapist and speech pathologist;
• Behavior Intervention services for children 3 – 5 to improve self-regulation skills so kids will be socially-emotionally ready for kindergarten.
• Emergency assistance, including access to food, hygiene items, clothing, diapers, furniture and other home goods;
• Crisis counseling, strengths-based case management, and individual or group therapy for parents in crisis, provided by six social workers and two Adult/Family Therapists;
• Supportive Housing through our partnership with Amethyst Place to help low-income families find and keep housing. Rent/utility assistance and intensive case management are also available to families facing eviction
• Parenting Education to help parents’ better understand their children’s social-emotional and developmental needs and Emotional Support groups to help each family build a network of support to help them through difficult times.
• Referral services for children with special needs and families who need additional services.

Operation Breakthrough has been providing culturally-relevant programs and services to at-risk children and families for nearly 50 years. The Center became a Head Start/Early Head Start site in 1998 and was accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children in 2005, with renewals every five years. In February 2020, we earned the Missouri Accreditation of Programs for Children and Youth. Our key leaders are CEO Mary Esselman, Education Director Mary Mulkey, and Debbie Starr, director of Clinical & Support Services.

A 25-year veteran of urban education with two doctorates in education, Mary Esselman has a wealth of experience that comes from innovating in schools. She spearheaded the implementation of a variety of student-centered systems where she and her team worked to transform traditional public schools into prototypes for personalized, blended, 21st Century teaching and learning. She has worked with students ranging from pre-K to age 20, as well as with educational organizations in Washington, DC, Chicago, Kansas City, and Detroit. Her work has been cited in several publications, and her work on blended professional development is featured in a Gates Foundation Caselet on Next Generation Learning. She has presented at numerous national and regional educational conferences.

Mary M is responsible for the overall administration and management of OB’s early learning and school-age programs, including day-to-day operations, achievement of educational goals, and compliance with regulating entities. She also works closely with Clinical & Support Services to ensure an interdisciplinary approach to supporting children and families. Mary M joined OB in 2013 as Education & Outreach Coordinator, responsible for the implementation of a collaboration with Emmanuel Family & Child Development Center. Before joining OB, she was a Program Director at Bright Horizons’ Citi Family Center, where she was responsible for NAEYC and state licensing requirements and supervised teaching staff. Previously, she was a parent educator and elementary teacher in the Kansas City area. Mary M earned a Master’s in Education Administration and BA in Elementary Education.

Debbie Starr, LSCSW, LCSW, RPT, has led the Clinical and Social Services team since 2018. Her duties include overseeing children and adult mental health and case management, program development, staff development, and cultural relevance of program modalities. In addition, Debbie oversees six Family Advocates and two managers, who provide support services to the children’s families. She has worked in OB’s clinical department since 2012, starting as a Family Therapist. She has extensive training in trauma-informed approaches working with children and families. She also is trained in psychodynamic therapy, attachment, cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, narrative exposure therapy, somatic approaches, Theraplay, and Adlerian play therapy.

In 2018-19, Operation Breakthrough sent 93% of the graduating preschool children to Kindergarten ready based on the Desired Results Developmental Profile (DRDP) assessment, surpassing the goal of 90% for the fourth consecutive year. Eleven of the 12 pre-K classrooms met and/or exceeded the national average for quality interactions in emotional support, organizational support, and instructional support, exceeding our goal of 85%.

Our school-age enrollment climbed to 260 in this program year after facility and enrollment expansion in 2018. We saw increases across all children in reading at/above grade level from 68% in 2017-18 to 73% in 2018-19. We have also started tracking longitudinal reading data for children who are enrolled in our before/after school program. For the three cohorts of students who entered kindergarten ready, children reading at/above grade level in grade K-2 increased from 88% to 93%. This year was the first year we provided adaptive testing in math. We did see a significant improvement on the post-test of 27% with 69% of students testing proficient on the five power standards taught over the summer. Proficiency for K-2 was 77% at the end of summer with growth of 21% more children testing proficient.

The clinical team led 605 therapy sessions with individual children in 2018-19; 168 children received small group services. A total of 382 adult therapy sessions were provided with average attendance of 10 participants in each group.

Respondents to the Year-End Family Needs Assessment reported the following levels of improvement from participation in life-skill programming in the following areas:
Financial Stability -- 65%
Housing Stability -- 48%
Medical Care/Medicaid -- 40%
Parent/Child Relationships -- 21%
Reliable Transportation -- 30%
Reliable Supports and Connections -- 22%
Food Stability -- 11%
Advancing Education -- 20%

During the 2018-19 program year, our Center hosted two new preschool classrooms for Hogan Prep Charter Academy for 4- and 5-year-old children enrolled to begin kindergarten at the school next fall.

On the horizon for 2020-2022:
In early 2020, the Center's board and staff completed a refresh of the 2015 strategic plan, which over the next three years is designed to maximize school success for the children we serve through the delivery of quality education, health, and social services while strengthening the family's role in the child's well-being. Guiding the revised strategic plan are four key pathways -- Quality Child Education, Talented and Attuned Personnel, Supportive Services for Families, and Operational Excellence for Sustainability -- all of which are intended to “Empower Potential through People, Programming and Partnerships.”

How we listen

SOURCE: Self-reported by organization

Seeking feedback from people served makes programs more responsive and effective. Here’s how this organization is listening.

done We demonstrated a willingness to learn more by reviewing resources about feedback practice.
done We shared information about our current feedback practices.
  • Who are the people you serve with your mission?

    Operation Breakthrough serves some of the most underserved children and families in Kansas City's urban core. Nearly 80% are African American and 78% live more than 50% below the federal poverty level, on incomes of less than $1,000 a month. Over 90% of families are headed by single women. Although 65% of parents report a working parent, only 50% had full-time employment; 36% were working part-time and 14% had seasonal employment; 10% were enrolled in school or job training programs. Over 60% of parents have no education beyond high school or a GED certificate; only 4% have a college degree. Our latest survey of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) shows that 50% of parents have experienced 4 or more ACEs, four times the national rate.

  • How is your organization using feedback from the people you serve?

    To identify and remedy poor client service experiences, To identify bright spots and enhance positive service experiences, To make fundamental changes to our programs and/or operations, To inform the development of new programs/projects, To identify where we are less inclusive or equitable across demographic groups, To strengthen relationships with the people we serve, To understand people's needs and how we can help them achieve their goals

  • Which of the following feedback practices does your organization routinely carry out?

    We collect feedback from the people we serve at least annually, We take steps to get feedback from marginalized or under-represented people, We aim to collect feedback from as many people we serve as possible, We take steps to ensure people feel comfortable being honest with us, We look for patterns in feedback based on demographics (e.g., race, age, gender, etc.), We look for patterns in feedback based on people’s interactions with us (e.g., site, frequency of service, etc.), We engage the people who provide feedback in looking for ways we can improve in response, We act on the feedback we receive

  • What challenges does the organization face when collecting feedback?

    We don't have any major challenges to collecting feedback


Operation Breakthrough, Inc.

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The people, governance practices, and partners that make the organization tick.


Connect with nonprofit leaders


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Connect with nonprofit leaders


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  • Analyze a variety of pre-calculated financial metrics
  • Access beautifully interactive analysis and comparison tools
  • Compare nonprofit financials to similar organizations

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Operation Breakthrough, Inc.

Board of directors
as of 03/11/2022
SOURCE: Self-reported by organization
Board co-chair

Mr. David Ayres


Term: 2018 - 2024

Board co-chair

Beth Soukup

J.E. Dunn Construction Co.

Term: 2018 - 2024

Tammy Ham

BioNovus Innovations

Spencer Hardwick

Teach for America

Pam Ungashick


Jamey Bertram

Burns & McDonnell

Marsha Gershun

Retired, Jackson County CASA

Laura Fitzmaurice

Children's Mercy Hospital

Lannette Woodruff

Former Member, D.C. State Board of Education

Tray Vedock

SKC Communications

Chris Goode

Ruby jean's juicery

Kathryn Harvel

Community America Credit Union

Wendy Hill


Smith Holland

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Jolie Justus

University Health

Emmett W. Thompson II

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Richard Winston

Fike Corp.

Board leadership practices

SOURCE: Self-reported by organization

GuideStar worked with BoardSource, the national leader in nonprofit board leadership and governance, to create this section.

  • Board orientation and education
    Does the board conduct a formal orientation for new board members and require all board members to sign a written agreement regarding their roles, responsibilities, and expectations? Yes
  • CEO oversight
    Has the board conducted a formal, written assessment of the chief executive within the past year ? Yes
  • Ethics and transparency
    Have the board and senior staff reviewed the conflict-of-interest policy and completed and signed disclosure statements in the past year? Yes
  • Board composition
    Does the board ensure an inclusive board member recruitment process that results in diversity of thought and leadership? Yes
  • Board performance
    Has the board conducted a formal, written self-assessment of its performance within the past three years? Yes

Organizational demographics

SOURCE: Self-reported; last updated 3/4/2022

Who works and leads organizations that serve our diverse communities? Candid partnered with CHANGE Philanthropy on this demographic section.


The organization's leader identifies as:

Race & ethnicity
Gender identity
Female, Not transgender (cisgender)
Sexual orientation
Heterosexual or straight
Disability status
Person without a disability

Race & ethnicity

Gender identity


Sexual orientation


Equity strategies

Last updated: 03/11/2022

GuideStar partnered with Equity in the Center - an organization that works to shift mindsets, practices, and systems to increase racial equity - to create this section. Learn more

  • We review compensation data across the organization (and by staff levels) to identify disparities by race.
  • We disaggregate data to adjust programming goals to keep pace with changing needs of the communities we support.
  • We disaggregate data by demographics, including race, in every policy and program measured.
  • We have long-term strategic plans and measurable goals for creating a culture such that one’s race identity has no influence on how they fare within the organization.
Policies and processes
  • We have a promotion process that anticipates and mitigates implicit and explicit biases about people of color serving in leadership positions.
  • We seek individuals from various race backgrounds for board and executive director/CEO positions within our organization.
  • We have community representation at the board level, either on the board itself or through a community advisory board.
  • We help senior leadership understand how to be inclusive leaders with learning approaches that emphasize reflection, iteration, and adaptability.
  • We measure and then disaggregate job satisfaction and retention data by race, function, level, and/or team.
  • We engage everyone, from the board to staff levels of the organization, in race equity work and ensure that individuals understand their roles in creating culture such that one’s race identity has no influence on how they fare within the organization.