There’s always a way. That’s Sr. Berta Sailer’s motto, and it has been since she and Sr. Corita Bussanmas started Operation Breakthrough in Kansas City in 1968. Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of visiting this sprawling bright corner of hope in an old JCPenney store in Kansas City.
Years of responding to the needs of poor children has built what is now a one-stop comprehensive service network for children and families in need. Breakthrough wasn’t built with a business plan, advance financing or a well-healed board of directors. It was built by women of faith single-mindedly committed to their ministry to poor families. With each identified need, they added a service.
Some of those services are simple. When staff found out a mom didn’t tell her child about his birthday because she couldn’t afford to celebrate it, they opened the “birthday closet,” filled with gifts for children of all ages, and a cake baking kit with cake mix, icing and candles so that any parent could make a cake for their child.
Some services are complex. Operation Breakthrough has a complete and remarkable state-of-the-art therapy, medical and dental center. We visited a therapy room with shelves of small toys that children can use to tell their stories. The staff there described the high levels of trauma that many of the children have experienced – many have had more than four traumatic events in their young lives, a measure of their high risk for later mental and physical health problems. The therapeutic team at Operation Breakthrough works leads children through the steps necessary for creating new neural pathways that will give them an opportunity to thrive in the future.
More than 300 children attend Head Start early education programs at the center. “If they can learn to read and read well, they can get out of this poverty mess,” said Sr. Berta. They have a clothing closet run by volunteer “closet queens,” a library that was full of teen volunteers shelving books on the day we came through, a food pantry and a kitchen that serves 1,100 meals a day.
”We started out by pretending we had a catering license, preparing food at home, and bringing it back in to feed a few kids,” Sr. Berta remarked about the early days of her ministry in 1968. As she says, there’s always a way.
Operation Breakthrough demonstrates the power that ACF’s many faith-based partners bring to their work with our nation’s most vulnerable families. Their clear-eyed mission focus helps them manage the many rules that they have to follow for government dollars. “Sometimes we have to put pressure on to make the rules make sense,” she said. “But we’ll do it because these women are stuck in this mess.
And sometimes, they can operate with only the rules that makes sense to them – those of compassion and generosity. “When we opened this food pantry we were the only food pantry in Kansas City,” she said, indicating the tidy shelves of canned goods, pasta, dried beans and rice. “People can come in here and take what they need for their families. We don’t fix a bag for them. They don’t have to take a can of beans if they don’t want it – they choose. And they don’t have to show their ID or any paperwork or utility bills or anything like that,” she said, proud to have a corner of her service free of means testing.
Kansas City, Missouri is lucky to have Sr. Berta and Sr. Corita. They bring 40+ years of facing every single obstacle and saying: There’s always a way. And they, with the help of an extremely supportive community, find that way. The whole nation has much to learn from them.