Operation Breakthrough Launches Program to Prepare Teens for Careers Beyond High School

Since 2015, Kansas City-based social services organization Operation Breakthrough has expanded its educational supports for disadvantaged youth to include STEM programming. It started with the addition of its MakerSpace for 3 to 5 year olds, followed two years later by its MakerCity for school-age kids and in 2021, the launch of the Ignition Lab for high school students.

Along the way, the Opus Foundation has provided funding to support the growth envisioned by Operation Breakthrough CEO Mary Esselman. With a recent $50,000 grant supporting further development of the Ignition Lab, the Foundation has granted Operation Breakthrough more than $575,000, including $62,000 as the inaugural Gerry Rauenhorst Building Community Award winner in 2015. The award money helped underwrite the creation of the MakerSpace, which began Operation Breakthrough's foray into STEM learning.

“I have always been incredibly impressed by Operation Breakthrough," said Kristin Ridley, Executive Director of the Opus Foundation. “Mary is a passionate leader with a strong vision for the organization that includes growth, impact and results. Operation Breakthrough is always working to further develop and improve its programming to best meet the needs of the children and families they serve."

With support from the Opus Foundation, Operation Breakthrough is now rolling out five entrepreneurial ventures as part of the Ignition Lab. A strong fit with the Foundation's focus areas of youth and workforce development, the programming is designed to prepare teens for careers beyond high school by immersing them in real-world businesses.

Holistic Support Services

Since 1971, Operation Breakthrough has provided a safe, loving and educational environment for children in poverty while empowering families through advocacy, emergency aid and education. Since the Opus Foundation's first grant in 2010, the organization has nearly doubled in size.

The needs of those served by Operation Breakthrough are multifaceted. More than 70% of the families live on less than $1,000 a month. The organization holistically supports them with high-quality early childhood and youth programming, a health and dental clinic, speech and occupational therapy, emergency assistance, trauma therapies, meal programs and parental services. The clinical team leads over 900 therapy sessions with individual pre-school children each year and more than 150 kids receive small group services. A social-emotional coach helps children regulate their emotions and build skills to act respectfully in the classroom.

Educational programming spans from early childcare through high school. Programs are offered independently and in collaboration with local schools – and they achieve impressive results. About 90% of the organization's pre-school students achieve kindergarten-readiness annually through Operation Breakthrough's Head Start and community programs compared to 5% of students who are not enrolled.

STEM Programming Through the Years

Following the success of the MakerSpace for preK students, Operation Breakthrough acquired an additional facility and built out its MakerCity with the help of a $150,000 Opus Foundation grant. In the MakerCity school-age children are introduced to real-world skills such as fiber arts, robotics, coding, product design, life science and culinary arts. The organization's school-age enrollment tripled to serve over 350 children annually after the opening of the MakerCity. On average, 80% of those students felt their work in the MakerCity helped develop their problem-solving abilities and gain confidence in their math and science skills.

Building on that success, Operation Breakthrough, with the help of another Opus Foundation grant, expanded its space further in 2021 and created the Ignition Lab. There, more than 80 youth who previously participated in the organization's school-age programs and 250 students from two area high schools are gaining experience in multimedia production, culinary arts, product design (2D/3D printing), digital electronics, graphic design, robotics, computer tech and automotive/engineering. The expansion also includes 2,250 square feet for programming in arts, fabrication, manufacturing and green tech.

After working in the Ignition Lab, one student said he thinks of himself as a leader now. Another said she feels smarter.

“The Ignition Lab makes me feel powerful," said 15-year-old Vicky. 

Each week, teens learn through hands-on activities like producing podcasts, testing the pH of water in a hydroponic-tower garden, soldering wires the size of an eyelash, taking apart and repairing laptops, turning sketches into 3D images with computer-aided design software, coding a robot to do push-ups and removing the engine of a 53-year-old Chevy.

Entrepreneurial Opportunities and Marketplace Certifications

With valuable skills and new-found confidence, the teens can provide marketable goods and services to the community. The latest $50,000 Opus Foundation grant supports further development of the Ignition Lab through five entrepreneurial pathways: A next-gen hydroponic ag farm, a computer repair shop, a food truck, a pop-up product design retail shop and video production services. Enrolled youth will gain certifications while participating in a pilot workforce program. 

“These five pathways will give students experiential learning opportunities in which they'll plan, execute and sustain entrepreneurial ventures through the financial, marketing and operations lenses," Mary Esselman said. “They'll gain an understanding of short-cycle innovation while assessing what adjustments are needed to sustain and grow their businesses. It's learning that transcends the classroom and introduces new possibilities for their futures."

Partners in Growth

“When you look at our ability to reduce the STEM opportunity gap for children of color and girls, Opus has played a large role," Mary said. “They have been willing to invest in the promise of our STEM programs, rather than wait until each program was in place and already implemented. That trust has allowed us to grow and help our children thrive."

In addition to grantmaking, our associates are also involved with Operation Breakthrough. Oscar Healy, Regional Vice President of Construction, has been active with them for many years and currently serves on the Ignition Lab Advisory Council. Our team members have volunteered with the organization and also attend events. And recently on one of our Kansas City jobsites, three Operation Breakthrough students shadowed our team and gained exposure to construction careers.

“We love Opus," Mary said. “The Opus Foundation serves as a thought partner to us and Opus associates who are based in Kansas City are engaged, helpful and responsive."


Operation Breakthrough was the winner of the first Gerry Rauenhorst Building Community Award. This award honors our founder's legacy of giving. Fueled by unwavering optimism, Gerry demonstrated an entrepreneurial spirit, creativity and a commitment to finding a better way to build a business, community and value-centered life. With an enduring belief that business has a responsibility to strengthen society, Gerry ensured giving back was a cornerstone of our organization. Each year, we select the annual award winner and the Opus Foundation grants them $1,000 for each year of our organization's history.


The Opus Foundation® is the corporate foundation for The Opus Group and is building community for a better tomorrow by supporting projects and programs that make our communities better places to live, work and raise families. The Foundation is committed to improving conditions that disproportionately affect historically underinvested individuals and communities by resourcing key focus areas of early childhood education, youth development, workforce development, community revitalization and pressing/emerging needs. Read more about the Foundation's work. The Opus Foundation is a separate entity from The Opus Group and is led by its own Board of Directors.