Ordinary people taking action for extraordinary change.

Corita Bussanmas 'saw a need and tried to fill it'

Decades later, thousands of children and parents in Kansas City have benefited from Operation Breakthrough.

Courtesy of Gloria Baker Feinstein/Operation Breakthrough
Sister Corita Bussanmas is the mother of four adopted children, including Vanshay, shown here in 2008.

As she arrives at the back door of Operation Breakthrough, escorted by one of the center’s employees, Sister Corita Bussanmas is greeted like a visiting celebrity. It’s not for several minutes that she finally makes her way through the phalanx of friends, colleagues, and workers at the center, and heads for a basement office to be interviewed.

In 1971, Sister Bussanmas, along with Sister Berta Sailer, founded Operation Breakthrough, a large day-care center on the east side of Kansas City, Mo. Since then, it has grown into the largest single-site early education and social service provider in the state, touching the lives of  thousands of people.

“This place just happened,” says Bussanmas, her arm sweeping in a gesture that takes in the entire enterprise and its storied, 45-year history. “We didn’t know what we were doing. We just fell into it. We saw a need and tried to fill it. And then this place just grew and grew and grew.”

Needless to say, Operation Breakthrough did not “just happen.” It came about through the tenacity, creative thinking, and plain hard work of the two nuns.

Their single-minded devotion to the working poor of Kansas City over the course of decades has earned them the gratitude of the city and a high degree of local renown. Two more-celebrated nuns would be hard to find anywhere.  

“The thing that is amazing about the two of them is they never give up on anybody,” says Claudia York, a longtime associate currently living in Colorado. “They believe that, no matter what anyone has been through, there is hope for them to create a better life for themselves.

“They are kind to everyone, but in a practical way. ‘We’ll get you food. We’ll get you a place to live. We’ll help you find a job. We’ll take care of your kids.’ They have pulled more people out of poverty than any organization I can think of.”

Bussanmas was the second youngest of eight children in a large and close-knit family in Des Moines, Iowa. An older sister entered a convent when Bussanmas was a baby, and Bussanmas followed her example, joining the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Dubuque, Iowa, in 1952. She was sent to teach second grade at Our Lady of the Angels School, a Roman Catholic elementary school in Chicago, in 1958. It was there that she met Sister Sailer, also a teacher, and where their partnership of more than 50 years began.

In 1967 Bussanmas was sent to Kansas City to serve as principal of St. Vincent de Paul Academy, an inner-city school. Located in one of the more impoverished sections of town, St. Vincent’s had been struggling with declining enrollment for many years. At Bussanmas’s invitation, Sailer moved to Kansas City the next year to teach seventh and eighth grade at St. Vincent’s.

While working at the school, the nuns saw that working parents in the neighborhood had an enormous need for high-quality child care. As a side venture, and with no financial support or encouragement from the archdiocese, they turned their large and mostly empty convent house into a day-care center furnished with donated furniture and toys. The first year they had about 10 children. By 1971 they had expanded the day care into the rectory, become a nonprofit corporation, and had 50 infants, toddlers, and preschoolers enrolled.

Although they charged a fee for the day care, few parents paid it. Yet the sisters never turned anyone away. They relied on donations, volunteers, and grants, including one from the Model Cities Program, part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. They even tried supplementing the center’s income by leasing a Standard Oil service station next door to the convent for two years.

By 1975 St. Vincent’s had closed, and the nuns were devoting themselves full time to Operation Breakthrough. The center moved a few times before landing in 1981 at its current location at the intersection of 31st Street and Troost Avenue, in a former J.C. Penney store. A major renovation in 2006 doubled the center’s size to 32,000 square feet.

Child care at the center has always had an educational component, including reading and math readiness. “People think of child care as just baby-sitting,” Bussanmas says. “We don’t do baby-sitting. No! You work with children. It’s a job. A job means work. If you don’t go home tired at night, you haven’t done your job.”

Today 400 children, from infants through eighth-graders, are enrolled in Operation Breakthrough, with hundreds on a waiting list. The average annual income for enrolled families is less than $13,000 a year. In addition to the early childhood program, the center, which employs 130 people, offers before- and after-school care, and summer enrichment and literacy programs.

It also provides a wide array of other services for the children and their parents, including access to medical and dental clinics; social workers; physical, occupational, and speech therapists; a food pantry; and used clothing. The families are not charged a fee. About one-third of the center’s annual operating budget of $8 million comes from government sources. The remaining $5 million-plus must be raised privately every year.

Bussanmas and Sailer have worked so closely for so many years that it’s impossible to talk about one and not the other. Yet the two couldn’t be more different. Much of the reason for the center’s success is that their skills, interests, and personalities are nearly perfect complements. The energetic and outgoing Sailer very naturally became the public face of the organization, while Bussanmas was happiest working behind the scenes and keeping the large and growing enterprise running. To do so, she took classes in bookkeeping and accounting, and schooled herself in tax and employment law and other subjects to benefit the organization.

“Sister Berta is the great visionary, the big personality who can sweep you up in her quest,” says Loring Leifer, who has recently completed a history of Operation Breakthrough, to be published in April. “Sister Corita is much more measured. She has this incredible sense of the goodness of people. And yet she’s also a realist who saw that resources had to be prioritized and that you could not help everyone all the time.”

As Ms. Leifer writes in “Angels with Angels: The Rogue Nuns Behind Operation Breakthrough,” “When Sr. Berta rocked the boat, Sr. Corita kept it afloat.”

In addition to the thousands of children who have attended Operation Breakthrough, the nuns have formally adopted and raised four children, and have been foster parents to scores more. They simply cannot say no to anybody in need, particularly children.

“Becoming a sister and taking a vow to live in poverty and serve others, Sister Corita has taken that very seriously,” says Jennifer Heinemann, who has been involved with Operation Breakthrough since 1989 and currently serves as associate director of development. “She grew up in a family that was very spiritual, very devoted to service. Family and children were very precious. I think her upbringing was the foundation of everything she has accomplished.”

Back in the basement office, Bussanmas, who officially retired in 2013, reflects with some amazement on the modest beginnings of Operation Breakthrough and what it has grown into as its 45th anniversary approaches.

“When we started, we had no finances – none whatsoever,” she says. “But if you always have to rely on money, you’re never going to get anything done. If it’s supposed to be, it’s going to be. We never asked, ‘Can we?’ We just said, ‘We’re doing this.’ And we did it.”

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How to take action

Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three organizations that help children and teens:

The Shirley Ann Sullivan Educational Foundation improves the lives of youths by providing education and promoting the protection of children’s rights. Take action: Help send a child to school.

Children of the Night rescues children from the ravages of prostitution. Take action: Help teens on the streets receive an education.

• Helen Keller International serves at-risk children in urban and rural poverty in five US states by offering vision screenings and eyeglasses free of charge. Take action: Help children who are struggling in the classroom because they need eyeglasses.

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