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Sister Berta Sailer, unflappable advocate for Kansas City's disadvantaged children, dies at 87

In boardroom at Operation Breakthrough, Sister Berta Sailer. She will be in audience this evening as President Obama delivers his State of the Union Address.
Photos courtesy of Rachael Jane
Sister Berta Sailer in the board room at Operation Breakthrough.

With her life-long colleague Sister Carita Bussanmas, Sister Berta Sailer opened a day care in their home in the 1960s that eventually grew to become Operation Breakthrough. Sailer devoted her life to helping children and families, and personally fostered some 75 kids.

Sister Berta Sailer — the public face as well as the emotional DNA of Operation Breakthrough, one of the largest and most comprehensive childcare agencies in the Kansas City region — died Thursday morning due to complications from Alzheimer's Disease. She was 87.

Sailer passed away peacefully at her Kansas City home.

“A tireless advocate for children in poverty, Sister Berta was the go-to person for three generations of families in the urban core,” Operation Breakthrough wrote in an obituary. “She stood up for them in court, in Jefferson City and Washington DC. She helped them bury their dead, diaper their babies and keep going when it seemed like the whole world was against them.”

Sailer was a Catholic nun with Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. With her life-long colleague Sister Carita Bussanmas, the two opened a day care in their home immediately after arriving at the parish of St. Vincent de Paul, at 31st and Flora, in the 1960s.

It didn’t take long for the sisters to recognize that working moms didn’t have a place to leave their infants.

In those days, if you were middle or upper class, the wife stayed home and the husband worked,” Sailer said in an interview with KCUR a few years ago. “Well, a lot of our single moms needed childcare.”

Bussanmas died in March 2021.

Operation Breakthrough today serves more than 700 children each day. It offers a progressive model that includes services such as before- and after-school care, Head Start and tutoring, breakfast, lunch and afternoon snacks, medical and dental programs and emergency assistance.

In 2018, the center expanded to include an art studio and maker space, robotics, electronics and a gym. It also provides programming for parents.

The scope and success of Operation Breakthrough are largely due to Sailer's dogged commitment to those she referred to as “her moms.”

“She probably slept four hours a night,” said Jennifer Heinemann, director of stewardship and planned giving. “She’d constantly come in and say, ‘Oh, you know what I was thinking this morning?’ and we all knew that meant she had some grand vision at 2 a.m. and was ready for us to execute it.”

Kansas City leaders offered their respects Thursday on social media.

“Sister Berta built a better life for thousands of Kansas City children and families, including my own. In so doing, she and Sister Corita had more impact on our city than almost any people in public life in Kansas City over the past fifty years,” Mayor Quinton Lucas wrote. “We were lucky to have her.”

“Sister Berta was a pillar of the Kansas City community, and we were all better off because of her contributions,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver.

Growing up

Sailer was born on Dec. 10, 1936, in Chicago as Judith Felice, and was raised going to Catholic schools.

Her mother left home when she was a toddler, leaving her widowed grandmother, Bertha, to care for her. Sailer was often on her own while her grandmother worked low-wage jobs.

Sailer described herself as an athlete, nature lover and tom boy. She would ride her bike to a local lake to fish for food for suppers, according to Angels with Angles, The Rogue Nuns Behind Operation Breakthrough.

All around her in Chicago, Sailer saw poverty and need. Early on, she knew she wanted a life of service, and chose to enter the convent after high school. There she found the mission-driven work she was seeking, but the family life she never had. She joined the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Dubuque, Iowa, where she developed a reputation for challenging authority.

Within a few years she was at Mundelein College in Chicago, founded by the BVM order in 1931, earning a B.A. in history and education.

Working nuns

Sisters Berta Sailer, left, and Corita Bussanmas, together fostered more than 70 children in their Raytown home.
Courtesy Operation Breakthrough
Sisters Berta Sailer, left, and Corita Bussanmas, together fostered more than 70 children in their Raytown home.

Sisters Berta Sailer and Carita Bussanmas met while teaching in Chicago, when their parish sent them to tend to a community where a school fire had killed 95 people, mostly children.

The sisters were counseled to offer prayer and moral support. Sailer found that to be a tepid and inadequate response, vowing, she said, never to obey a rule that puts kids in harm’s way, whether she was breaking a law or not.

Almost a decade later, Bussanmas was ordered to St. Vincent de Paul in Kansas City to a become a principal. She asked Sailer to come and teach middle school.

The school was in a large parish building that also housed priests and nuns. The house had extra rooms, so when they saw childcare was an urgent need, they opened their house as a day care center.

They started with four babies, but the numbers grew. In time, the sisters asked the priest to find another apartment so they could take in more children.

There was little regulation of the childcare business at the time, but infant care required a license. When authorities came knocking at the door looking for the nuns’ certification, Sailer characteristically found a workaround.

“They said we had to be part of an organized religious institution. And I said, ‘Well that's it! We’re two nuns,’” she explained. “Now, if our congregation knew we were doing this, they wouldn't have approved. But no one checked. So, we got a license."

Former Operation Breakthrough executive director Susan Stanton says while Bussanmas was more of a rule-follower, Sailer was pragmatic.

“So, moms say they need something for transportation,” Stanton said. “Sister Berta would say, ‘We’ll buy some busses, and we’ll pick these kids up.’ And Berta would drive the bus but maybe she didn’t have the right kind of license. They’d figure that out later.”

The nuns found community with conscientious objectors from the Vietnam War and hippies at the height of the counterculture revolution. They would crash at the nuns’ communal home and help care for the children while school was in session.

“We named it Operation Breakthrough for two reasons,” Sailer said. “We were gonna break through poverty, and since it was during the war, we thought the government would think it was part of the war effort and give us money, but that didn’t happen.”

Taking in foster kids

Sister Corita Bussanmas, the co-founder of Operation Breakthrough, died Saturday, March 27, 2021. She was 87.
Courtesy Operation Breakthrough
Sister Corita Bussanmas, the co-founder of Operation Breakthrough, died in 2021.

Over the years, Bussanmas and Sailer's home became an extension of their workplace.

When I visited the house a few years ago, a gaggle of seven or eight kids from grade schoolers to adolescents were drifting in. They laughed and roughhoused like cubs in the house, which had a tidy but discombobulated feel. Two big dogs barked, waiting to be let in from a back yard with an above ground pool and a random landscape of flowers and plants.

Sailer's passion about family only solidified as she saw so many children damaged by bouncing from one house to another in foster care.

In 1994, she and Bussanmas became licensed foster parents. Over the years, she said they housed around 75 children of all ages.

Chris Waxter, 34, came to live with the sisters when he was 10. He’d come over after school and help out with the younger kids. One weekend they asked him to stay over and he never left.

“At that point, home was a very rough place,” Chris said. “You never knew where your next meal is coming from. Really didn’t have good clothes, shoes too small to wear. It was just a tough area.”

Chris Waxter credits Operation Breakthrough and its founders, Sister Corita Bussanmas and Sister Berta Sailer, with saving his life.
Greg Echlin
KCUR 89.3
Chris Waxter credits Operation Breakthrough and its founders, Sister Corita Bussanmas and Sister Berta Sailer, with saving his life.

Among their dozens of foster children, Berta and Carita legally adopted four: Kenyauta, Ronald, Vanshay and Tyrez.

"An infamous worrywart, she was likely to call them a dozen times an hour if they weren’t home by 10 p.m., but they never doubted how much she cared," Operation Breakthrough wrote in its obituary.

Today, they have all have gone on to jobs or higher education.

Still with them, though, was Kenyauta Sailer, 29, who Sailer said was born addicted to 12 drugs and had severe intellectual and physical disabilities. The sisters brought her home as an infant.

Heinemann, who was one of Sailer's closest colleagues and friends, said she was with Vanshay when they got the news of Sailer's death.

"Of course there was the grief. The tears. But then she squared her little shoulders and went back to her kids," Heinemann said. "That's Sister Berta's legacy. She's still working through those whose lives she touched."

A legacy

In 2012, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver invited Sailer to be in the audience of President Barack Obama’s second State of The Union Address. She told KCUR at the time that, even though she knew she would not meet the president, she felt it was important for her to go to Washington.

“We will be able to talk to people who are making laws that affect our families, some for really good and some that set them back,” she said.

Over the years, programs have expanded at Operation Breakthrough to focus on moving children and families toward sustainable independence and success.

“Sister Berta knew you couldn’t focus on children all day and not be concerned about what happens when they’re not with us,” said Heinemann. “If they go home and there’s not dinner or mom is so stressed about where the bread money is coming from, their success will not be the same.”

Laura Spencer
KCUR 89.3
Cars of families lined up outside Operation Breakthrough in April 2020 to pick up groceries and other supplies during the COVID stay-at-home order.

Executive director Mary Esselman said Operation Breakthrough's essential mission has not changed since the sisters started it, though the organization has become more strategic in tracking success and outcomes. For example, there is now increased STEM programming for the youngest students and metrics that push for kids to be reading at grade level by third grade.

“We’re not there yet,” Essleman said. “But we’re tracking our kids as they move through our programs, trying to make sure they’re hitting those markers.”

Former Kansas City Health Department director Rex Archer said Sailer was ahead of her time in her understanding poverty was a public health problem, and that the needs of people without resources are the same as the needs of everyone else.

“The impact of (her) programs on those individuals and the community at large is priceless,” Archer said. “Her spirit will live on in the organization she and Carita founded and nurtured.”

Almost 100% of Operation Breakthrough’s clients live below the poverty line. Nearly a quarter of the children are homeless.

Sailer liked to say that we work hard to find homes for our pets, but don’t seem to have a problem with people not having houses.

“Until middle and upper-class families say they won’t tolerate poverty,” she said, “it won’t go away. Families shouldn’t have to struggle like they do in Kansas City.”

Instead of flowers, Operation Breakthrough encourages people to make memorial contributions to The Sister Corita and Sister Berta Irrevocable Trust (for the care of the family) at Country Club Bank, One Ward Parkway, Kansas City MO 64112

OR: Make a gift to the children of Operation Breakthrough in memory of Sister Berta at P.O. Box 412482, Kansas City MO 64141.

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