Visitors to Operation Breakthrough can hold a baby and chat with a teen entrepreneur in the same half hour!
Preparing children to break through poverty starts with the infants and runs all the way through high school, now that Operation Breakthrough’s Ignition Lab has launched.
In 2021, Operation Breakthrough renovated a muffler shop across the street from its early learning center to create The Ignition Lab, a workforce development program, offering hands-on training in 10 fields, including digital electronics, culinary arts and automotive and engineering. The property, a gift from Chiefs superstar Travis Kelce, allows OB to extend its weekly impact to 1,100+ children, ages 6 weeks to 18 years.
“The majority of jobs in the future will involve science, technology, engineering and math,” says CEO Mary Esselman, “so we’ve really started to focus on STEM and that continuum from birth through high school.”
In the infant rooms, teachers introduce numbers by counting babies’ toes. Toddlers learn geometry basics while talking about the square crackers and triangular pieces of cheese in their afternoon snack. At age 3, children begin STEM learning in the PreK MakerSpace, where they put engineering principles and collaboration skills to work solving problems, such as how to rescue Rapunzel from her tower or build Baby Bear a sturdier chair. They learn coding by pressing directional arrows on little robots, programming them to navigate mazes.
“At first you’re thinking, ‘Isn’t that something you do when kids get older?’ Mary says. “People underestimate 3- to 5-year-olds.”
In kindergarten, students move to Operation Breakthrough’s MakerCity where they spend 10 weeks at a time in labs devoted to fields such as visual art, life science, digital media and construction and design. By age 8, they can join the robotics team and compete in tournaments. By age 10 or 12, they’re canning pickles and learning the science behind food preservation. They’re flying drones, writing and filming movie shorts using stop-motion animation and building weight-bearing bridges.
At 14, the students move to The Ignition Lab, where real-world experiences await them in the fields of graphic design, digital electronics, computer repair, automotive and engineering, green tech, culinary arts, digital media, robotics/AI, product design and fabrication. This school year, 300 teens are working in The Ignition Lab each week, with students from two nearby high schools doing coursework there during the school day and students who grew up at Operation Breakthrough coming in daily after school.
For beginning students, projects range from earning a food-handling license in culinary arts, to designing personal logos in graphic design, to learning to weld car parts, solder circuitry, take apart and reassemble a computer or write a podcast.
“We’re actually looking to build industry-recognized skills that they can use to enter a higher paying job out of high school, go on to more technical training or to have a more focused pathway to college,” Mary says.
While they are learning, the after-school and summer students earn a weekly stipend because the biggest competition for their attention is work. Coming from families with average income of $12,000 or less, they feel pressure to get jobs and help out at home. With the stipend comes part-time work around Operation Breakthrough, mentoring younger children, job coaching and financial literacy classes that teach the importance of living within their means. Students who choose to save a portion of their pay earn bonuses.
In business classes the advanced students learn about marketing, human resources and economics in preparation for their entrepreneurial ventures. The green tech students are awaiting USDA approval for their container farm, where they will grow hydroponic mushrooms and basil for restaurants and farmer’s markets. The culinary arts students are perfecting their original recipes and test-marketing the menu for their food truck, named “Breakthrough Bites.” The computer repair students have so far fixed more than 70 laptops and PCs to prepare for the opening of their repair shop to the larger community. The automotive team is restoring a 1969 Chevelle and installing a Tesla drivetrain and batteries to convert the car from gas to electric, ideally in time for Kelce to drive the refurbished car to a Chiefs game this season, before they auction it off to the highest bidder!
Thanks to community support, Operation Breakthrough students are building skills, from the infant rooms to The Ignition Lab, from cradle to career.
Says Anna, 15, who learned to weld, program micro-chips and use a laser cutter in a few months at Operation Breakthrough, these opportunities “make me feel powerful!”