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WordPlay participant Tyrone; photo by Kimberly Scaff

Communication is key. Especially when it comes to breaking out of poverty. That’s what inspired Libby Hunter and Elissa Yancey to launch WordPlay in September 2012.


They knew Cincinnati has the nation’s third highest child poverty rate, and that only five percent actually break free from the cycle to move into working middle class life. That’s what moved Hunter and Yancey to make a difference.


Through their experiences – Hunter in social services and Yancey in education – these founders know firsthand about the hardships and struggles that the area’s youth face day to day. So, they brought WordPlay to life where kids could form relationships across economic and ethnic divides, where they could expose them to the love of language, books and learning, and where they also could grow together as a community.


WordPlay’s mission focuses on offering a safe and inspirational “third place” for kids outside of home and school to provide support with homework, reading, writing, collaborative arts, and project based learning that encourages self-expression. “Before we opened our doors on Hamilton Avenue in Northside last September, more than 100 volunteers worked to make our dreams their reality,” explains Yancey Co-founder and chair of WordPlay’s Board of Directors. “What makes us unique is that spirit of community ownership, kid ownership and our focus on making learning and building relationships fun.”


Yancey is a full-time journalism professor at the University of Cincinnati. Hunter is the co-founder and Executive Director of WordPlay. “[Hunter] is the life and spirit of what makes it all work and the people of WordPlay are forever indebted to her dedication to this cause,” says Yancey. “She changes lives every single day and sacrifices much to do it. We are truly lucky to have her in our city.” When kids enter WordPlay they want to stay because of the love and support they receive. They get to read every day with the assistance of tutors in tubs or at tables and also get the chance to work, create, learn, and come together.

Kids get to work on relationships with grown-ups to help them succeed in the long run. “Their grades improve too, as does their behavior and their attendance,” says Yancey. “But we know that those successes are all predicated on building their capacity to relate in healthy ways to others.” In the first year, more than 500 young people participated in WordPlay programming, including after school tutoring, special workshops, Saturday sessions and school partnerships with Aiken High School, St. Peter Claver School in Over the Rhine, Chase Elementary, Parker Woods Montessori and St. Boniface School.

They also have trained nearly 200 tutors, who are the backbone of the force that keeps the organization growing. This year they hope to hold steady with the enormous successes they’ve already seen. Yancey is the chair of our curriculum committee where they have top university education experts working to assess the programs to make them even better and to allow it to grow responsibly and successfully. They are also looking for funding to allow them to stabilize their current programming levels. Everyone wants them to grow, and they know there are so many more students they could help if they had capacity. This is they’re capacity building year so they can be smart about their growth and make sure all their kids are getting as much as they can give them.

WordPlay is now working on their Adopt-A-WordPlayer campaign, which has just launched and continues through the end of the calendar year. With the right funding this campaign will prove that it takes all of us to build a healthy, prosperous city. To learn more, visit www.wordplaycincy.org.