People
9:27 pm
Tue August 13, 2013

As Founding Nuns Age, Operation Breakthrough Looks Forward

Sister Berta Sailer, left, will not retire right now. Sister Carita Bussanmas had a bad fall recently and may not be able to come back to Operation Breakthrough to work.
Sister Berta Sailer, left, will not retire right now. Sister Carita Bussanmas had a bad fall recently and may not be able to come back to Operation Breakthrough to work.
Credit Laura Ziegler / KCUR

For more than three decades, the two nuns who’ve run Operation Breakthrough at 31st and Troost have provided mostly single moms the freedom to work.          

In the beginning, Sister Berta Sailer and Sister Carita Bussanmas had an informal arrangement to watch a handful of kids whose mothers could not afford child care.

Today, Operation Breakthrough has an $8 million budget, cares for more than 500 kids, and offers a medical and dental clinic, food and clothes pantry, social workers and therapists.

But as the charismatic nuns age and face retirement, the alumnae of Operation Breakthrough and administration are having to think about the future of the agency. 

In the Raytown, Mo. backyard of Sister Berta Sailer and Sister Carita Bussanmas people gather for a family photo.

"I want to start a TV show," one of the sisters many "children" says.                           

Family photo -Sister Berta, Sister Carita and foster kids. Over 70 kids have lived with them over the years.
Family photo -Sister Berta, Sister Carita and foster kids. Over 70 kids have lived with them over the years.
Credit Laura Ziegler

"He wants to start a TV show, 'Living With The Nuns,'" says one of the sisters.        

But this is not your typical suburban brood. Eight young black kids ranging in age from 25 to one, including a non-verbal teenager in a wheelchair, born addicted to 12 different drugs. Some of the kids have lived with the nuns their whole lives, some are foster kids and some just come and go. 

The sisters have been taking care of kids for 42 years, they began while teaching middle school at St. Vincent's Parish in Kansas City, Mo. 

They started because some of the mothers in the neighborhood weren't working, because they couldn't afford childcare. 

"Middle and upper-class people, the wife stayed home and the husband worked," says Sister. "Well, a lot of our single moms needed childcare, and it wasn't a regulated industry then at all." 

And so the nuns hired a woman from the neighborhood to watch the kids while they were teaching. At first there were four, soon there were 10 and then 20, and they needed more space. What began as an informal arrangement evolved into and official daycare center. In 1981 they moved into the old JC Penny's department store building at 31st and Troost.

"And we named it Operation Breakthrough for two reasons: we were going to breakthrough poverty, and it was during the Vietnam War and we thought the government would think it was part of the war effort and they would give us money, but that didn't happen," says Sister Carita.

She says they got by because they didn't have to pay much for staff.

"I would have to say their salary was definitely a 'volunteer salary,'" says Sister Carita laughing. 

"It was during the days of the flower children and the Vietnam war, there were a lot of conscientious objectors, most of them lived in our house with us, so they got like $20 a month for teaching in the school or working in the church childcare center," says Sister Berta.

Four decades later Sister Berta says they agency has never had any legal problems involving the children and that it is filling an increasingly essential need for low-income women struggling to support families on low wage jobs. 

Missouri has cut funding for childcare, which means fewer families are subsidized, currently about one-third of the kids at Operation Breakthrough go for free.

The center offers early-childhood education, medical and dental workers, social workers and therapists and a food and clothes pantry for the families. 

The organization has prospered, largely due to the charismatic leadership of the two nuns. But, the Sisters are ageing and their retirement is eminent. Last year, 79-year-old Carita fell and broke a bone in her back. It is unclear if she will be able to come back to work.

Operation Breakthrough has services for children from infancy to high school-day care, after school care, medical and dental, food and clothing pantry.
Operation Breakthrough has services for children from infancy to high school-day care, after school care, medical and dental, food and clothing pantry.
Credit Laura Ziegler

Jennifer Heinemann, Director of Development at Operation Breakthrough, says she misses Sister Carita's calming influence.

"Sister Carita is always a source of faith for all of us," says Heinemann. "She is not the worrier. Roberta worries and worries and worries, Sister Carita just smiles and says, 'it will be alright.'"

Sister Berta, now 76, puts in 10-hour days, but admits she is also slowing down. Susan Stanton, who came in as President of Operation Breakthrough last year, says the nuns will always be the face of the agency, but childcare has changed. 

"The management has to be more intentional then the entrepreneuerial spirit that Sister Berta and Sister Carita had when they started. You know, you just can't" says Stanton. "I think they will acknowledge there is a little big of by-the-seat-of-their-pants, it's just do it."

Back at the Sister's house, the kids who live with the nuns lounge together on an wrap around couch. I ask if they understand what their foster mothers have done. 

Cordell Miller has lived virtually his whole life here, he is leaving this week for college at Missouri Science and Technology in Rolla, Mo. 

"Watching them do their job and being down at Operation Breakthrough and hearing a lot of the stories that they come home and discuss, to be able to say 'oh, I am going to college to be an engineer' or 'oh, I want to be pre-med or pre-vet,' is just amazing and a blessing to say," says Miller. "That is one thing I take from them, and when they are gone, they'll live through me."

Sisters Berta and Carita leave a legacy with dozens of kids like Cordell who lived under their roof at one time or another.

Their legacy also is permanent at Operation Breakthrough, though it is widely believed that once they are no longer there, the organization with never be the same.