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One year later, Sister Berta Sailer’s challenge has been answered

Updated: 2013-12-16T06:19:10Z

By LAURA BAUER

The Kansas City Star

A year ago, as Sister Berta Sailer watched tearful parents on television wait for their children to walk from a Connecticut school alive, one thought went through her mind.

She has put it in words many times since: “If we want to show our kids they are in a safe world, we need to show them there are more good people than bad people.”

Sailer, co-founder of Operation Breakthrough, has helped do just that since the tragedy.

Days after the shooting, Sailer threw down a challenge to the people of the Kansas City area.

To honor the 20 children who were killed that Friday morning in Connecticut, reach out to kids here.

Find an organization that helps children in need in Kansas City and volunteer, or donate a toy or supplies.

And people did.

A Leawood mom and her kids baked a cake and bought gifts for another child on his birthday.

Area residents volunteered to read to young children.

An Olathe woman signed up to be the voice for an abused or neglected child in court.

And an 87-year-old Lee’s Summit woman began sending birthday cards to preschoolers at Operation Breakthrough.

“Kansas Citians have a great heart, but you have to tell them what to do,” said Martha Gershun, executive director of Jackson County CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), which was featured in The Star’s Sister Berta’s Challenge series. “It’s not fair to expect people to just know.”

In the past year, the series profiled several nonprofits and agencies that help children.

The goal was to introduce readers to these groups, describe what they do and spell out volunteer opportunities.

Sailer’s idea was to give people who were called to action after the Sandy Hook shooting something they could do. Here.

“If you can help just one family, a family down the block,” Sailer said last week. “… We can all do something.”

Megan Sturges, executive director of Reach Out and Read Kansas City, took dozens of calls after her nonprofit was profiled. The program tries to reach families whose young children may not be exposed to books.

Not only do volunteers read in the lobbies of medical clinics and offices, but physicians and pediatricians prescribe reading at the end of checkups and give kids a new book to take home.

Some people wanted to donate books or learn more about the program. Others were eager to read. The nonprofit received roughly 100 inquiries, and about 60 people became new volunteers.

Sturges remembers one call from a retired kindergarten teacher.

“She said, ‘I’ve been looking for this opportunity since I retired,’ ” Sturges said. “ ‘And I had no idea you were out there. But this is perfect for me.’ 

The woman not only became a regular reader for the nonprofit, but also a captain helping other volunteers. Because so many people called and wanted to pitch in, Sturges said, the nonprofit is able to read to more children each week.

For other nonprofits, Sister Berta’s Challenge was more of an educational breakthrough. Many hadn’t heard much about the nonprofit HALO — Helping Art Liberate Orphans — which set out in 2005 to fund orphanages in other countries. But from its headquarters in Kansas City, it soon began helping local kids become contributing members of their communities.

HALO center director Carly Manijak said some people called for more information after reading about the organization. Others sent art supplies or signed up to help during a Monday night art therapy program at a homeless shelter.

“We had gone from struggling with volunteers for that workshop, and now we have plenty,” Manijak said. “… If people are helping their local community, they can see the need right here.”

Sometimes, Gershun said, people concentrate on helping needy children in faraway places because they know those children are hurting. Sister Berta’s Challenge made people realize many families are struggling nearby.

“I think it’s easy for people to think about all the children in the United States or overseas who are in need, but (there’s) not much you can do about that but send money,” said Gershun, who said CASA received dozens of new volunteers after the challenge. “But you find out about children five, 10 or 15 minutes from your house who need help, it really speaks to people.”

Like Anita Miller. She is the Lee’s Summit woman who called Operation Breakthrough in January when the first Sister Berta’s Challenge story ran.

Miller wanted to do something. But at 87, she didn’t get out much. Jennifer Heinemann of Operation Breakthrough suggested she send birthday messages to children at the center as they turned 4 and 5.

Buying cards and mailing them, that’s something Miller could do. For more than two months, she did. She became known as the card lady.

Sometime in the spring, people at Operation Breakthrough noticed the cards were arriving with another woman’s return address on the envelope. Soon after, that woman — Phyllis Bixler — called Heinemann.

Bixler lived across the street from Miller. When Miller fell ill, Bixler began mailing the cards for her.

“When she didn’t feel like she could do it anymore, she gave the list to me,” said Bixler, 70. “She asked me, ‘Will you keep doing this?’ 

And when Miller died in April, Bixler kept sending the cards.

Now Bixler wants to make the birthday wishes for the kids at Operation Breakthrough extra special. She plans to have her granddaughter Ashleigh and other Girl Scouts in her troop make cards to send.

The challenge will continue to be answered.

It’s what Sailer envisioned a year ago.

“There are so many needs, and we can fix some of them,” Sailer said. “Some, like Sandy Hook, we can’t fix. But we need to show our kids that there are more people who care than don’t care.”

To reach Laura Bauer, call 816-234-4944 or send email to lbauer@kcstar.com.

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