Words With Friends

Northside-based nonprofit promotes literacy in local youth


bout a year and a half ago, Libby Hunter was a residential real estate agent meeting with a client across from a Northside park when children started throwing rocks at the window. After Hunter spoke to them, she realized that there needed to be a way to reach the neighborhood children to help them avoid delinquent activity.

What first started as a community forum to address this problem resulted in a nonprofit organization called WordPlay, which offers a place outside the home where kids can get tutoring and work on creative projects that aim to create confidence and allow for positive social engagement. Co-founder Elissa Yancey suggested modeling the organization after 826 National, which is a nonprofit founded in San Francisco that has eight chapters nationwide. Hunter went through their training program in January and adapted some of their practices for WordPlay.

“We have a specific drive to go recruit, basically, the kids that were throwing rocks in the park that night,” Hunter says, “to get those kids that are most at risk of falling into not just delinquent behavior but drug use or gang involvement or whatever it might be — dropping out of school.” 

“We really want to retain the kids that do come in and show that we can make a difference in their level of reading proficiency,” Hunter adds. “And for them to know that they feel appreciated and celebrated here.” 

This nonprofit first opened its doors to the Northside community in September; by the end of November, Hunter estimates they will be serving about 75 kids a week. The organization currently has about 60 volunteers and is training about 20 to 30 volunteers per month.

Hunter says WordPlay has found a lot of support from the community. 

“I feel like we’ve been the little kid on the playground that everybody likes,” says Hunter. “Everybody wants these kids to succeed. Who doesn’t care about literacy and helping at-risk kids?” 

WordPlay holds afterschool programs Monday-Thursday and Saturday programs where children are connected with tutors so they can work together one-on-one with homework, reading and creative projects. Volunteers typically mentor the same students so they develop a strong rapport.

Justin Parker volunteers every Saturday afternoon with his wife Katie Eng. “When you walk in the door, they’ll see you and they get excited,” Parker says. “And they actually run up to you and sometimes they grab you, or grab a hold onto your arm or hug you. And they’re excited to learn and read with you.”

WordPlay also has evening programs, which are tailored to specific groups. A Tuesday evening group interested in filmmaking is learning about how to create storyboards.

The organization has partnered with three schools to create unique programs for each. 

Aiken High School informed Hunter that it had 15 underclassmen severely remedial in math and writing. Hunter points out that the school has a new principal, is in a temporary location, has a 60 percent graduation rate and nearly all kids are on a free lunch program, plus there were six deaths during the prior school year. The children at this school have a significant amount of obstacles to overcome. So Hunter created a program for those students most at risk to receive tutoring in math, reading and writing for two hours per week. 

WordPlay is also working with Chase Elementary to send tutors into the actual classrooms for tutoring. For this partnership, the organization is collaborating with a group called the Strive Partnership, which has an initiative called Be The Change that sends tutors into under-resourced and underperforming elementary schools. 

Sister City Association got involved with WordPlay to connect the students at Parker Woods Montessori with students in Taiwan. There will be a pen pal exchange with a website, where their handwritten letters will be scanned digitally.

Two service learning classes at the University of Cincinnati are volunteering at WordPlay. One is making a viral video, which will be completed by mid-December. UC’s School of Education also is advising WordPlay in terms of its curriculum development. 

Children of all abilities are welcome on a first-come, first-serve basis. “We get kids who are from very comfortable, secure households who are performing way above grade level working side by side with kids who are from a very different background,” Parker says. “They’re struggling in certain ways, but we find that they can work together collaboratively down here and they might not ever cross paths otherwise, you know? And, again, because we try to maintain that ratio of one adult to every student, it keeps a real nice, calm atmosphere.”

The WordPlay space has an assortment of wooden tables and chairs, as well as couches and bathtubs filled with blankets for kids to sit in and read. Paper mache birds are displayed in one of the large storefront windows, and throughout the space the children’s creative work is displayed. In the back sits the word blender, a giant snowglobe that swirls words around rather than snow. 

WordPlay is developing a storefront similar to the 826 chapters, which all have their own businesses that help fund the nonprofits. 

Hunter explains, “Each of the 826 chapters has their each unique storefront: There’s the Pirate Supply Store, there’s the Time Travel Mart, there’s the Bigfoot Research Center, um, Superhero Supply Store. We are the Urban Legend Institute.”

WordPlay will be applying to be a chapter, which can be an impetus for more funding. The idea of the Urban Legend Institute is that it encourages the students’ creativity: They create stories for miscellaneous artifacts in WordPlay and can read about urban legends.

The Urban Legend Institute will be one of the recipients of the CoSign project, which last week unveiled a number of artist-created signage for stores along Hamilton Avenue. 

“We’ve kind of been leaking little bits about the Urban Legend Institute,” Hunter says. “But suddenly (the neighborhood) will be like ‘What is this all about?’ And the sign is designed to pique curiosity and bring people into the door.”

For more information on WORDPLAY or to become a volunteer, visit wordplaycincy.org or stop by 4041 Hamilton Ave., Northside 3-6 p.m. Monday-Thursday or noon-4 p.m. Saturday.

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