Usually when people call Travis Kelce a game changer, they’re talking about football.
But the gridiron seemed to be the last thing on anyone’s mind on this balmy Thursday night inside the Guild KC, a chic Crossroads event space brimming with Kelce’s friends and family, philanthropists, statuesque models and 20-something socialites (and social climbers), savvy media agents and personalities, and even a few impossible-to-ignore Chiefs players.
It certainly was for Mary Esselman, with her sunrise of a smile and rather unassuming presence.
Standing a few feet from Kelce and his $4,000 Gucci suit, Esselman — bobbed, bespectacled and draped in a modest black top and floral cardigan, leaned close and extolled: “Events like tonight really help open up what we do to a community that might not be so familiar.”
She leaned in closer. “This event, what Travis does, he’s a game changer.”
Many in the room may not have realized it, but they were there because of Esselman. She’s the CEO of Operation Breakthrough, a Kansas City nonprofit day care. The event, the second annual Walk the Walk fashion benefit produced by Kelce and his Eighty-Seven & Running foundation, was happening solely to raise money for her organization, one of the largest single-site early education and social service facilities in Missouri.
In an interview that night, Kelce said he was struck by the work of Operation Breakthrough early on as a Chief and knew this was a cause he wanted to be tethered to:
“I remember it was Dr. Seuss’ birthday, and I got to read to the little ones and that was just an awesome experience. I remember when I was a young knucklehead and having that access to an after-school program in my community. It’s something that hits home to me and something I wanted to always be a part of.”
Thus the formation of Walk the Walk, a fusion of fashion and philanthropy, Kelce’s two loves outside football.
“This is only Eighty-Seven & Running’s second event,” Kelce said. “We’re very new to the KC area. I’m going to try and branch it back to my events in Cleveland Heights (his hometown) and team up with my brother and do some fun things back there.”
Since 1971, when it was founded by Sister Berta Sailer and Sister Corita Bussanmas, Operation Breakthrough has served more than 10,000 of Kansas City’s most at-risk youth. Today the day care serves more than 400 youth ages 6 to 13. The day care estimates that 87 percent of its families live below the federal poverty line, and 20 percent of the children are homeless or nearly homeless.
“We end up having over 100 slots of children who are funded solely by the community,” Esselman said. “A certain number of kids we receive funding for, but there are others who are supported solely through community funding endeavors like this one.”
A crowd of more than 200 mingled through hors d’oeuvres from Olive Events and a cocktail hour provided by J. Rieger & Co. and Crane Brewing. They were encouraged to bid in a silent auction for signed Kelce gear (a football, Pro Bowl jersey, playing cards, gloves and cleats) and enroll in Catching for a Cause, which allows donors to pledge a dollar amount for every catch Kelce makes next season.
Later, models (including a show-stealing pair of brothers and sisters from Operation Breakthrough) showcased local fashions to a crowd that included Kelce’s mom, Donna, Chiefs teammates Ross Travis and new addition De’Vante Bausby (himself a former Operation Breakthrough kid, like this reporter) and Kelce’s new leading lady, Kayla Brown.
“Helping out Kansas City is just fun, you know?” Kelce said. The city “is so involved in their football and being a team-first type of community. That’s something I want to give back to, considering how much they give us.”