Billy Ivey firmly believes you don’t have to do something grand to do something great. In fact, it can be as easy as jotting down a few kind words on a napkin.
About 15 years ago, Ivey started a small tradition within his now five-kid household. He started slipping handwritten notes, crafted with a Sharpie pen on an ordinary napkin, into his daughter’s lunchbox. One day, the napkin note was especially good — it read, “Remember, every time you smile a mean kid gets diarrhea.” So he decided to snap a photo of it and post it on social media. The outcome of this seemingly small action had a ripple effect Billy never saw coming.
“It kind of just went nuts,” Billy says of the post. “To go from posting pictures of your kids, your food and sunsets and having a couple hundred followers to, within a matter of days, getting multiple thousands of followers — it was kind of ridiculous.”
A marketer by trade, Billy knew he had something special on his hands, though there was no real rhyme or reason to his method. In his eyes, he was simply taking some time each morning to put pen to napkin for the sake of making his kids’ school day a little brighter.
“People were sending me stories, sending me long letters of how the consistency of the messages really spoke to them,” Billy says. “So I just kept doing it — over and over and over — and people started following and sharing.”
Sometime later, Chick-fil-A — whom Billy was working for at the time in Atlanta — asked the napkin-note novice if he would be willing to share his talent with needy children throughout the city who received boxed lunches during the summer months through Chick-fil-A’s philanthropic foundation. Billy thought the idea sounded great, so that summer, thousands of kids throughout Atlanta received their own napkin notes.
As Billy’s napkin tradition (and family) continued to grow, his story circulated throughout the region and country. Somewhere along the way, the napkin phenomenon garnered the moniker “Napkinisms.” Soon, companies began asking him to speak at corporate events. “It was kind of a happy accident,” Billy says of how quickly Napkinisms took off.
Last year, Children’s of Alabama approached Billy about sharing his story at an employee event. The talk went so well that the hospital decided to take Billy’s message one step further and incorporate Napkinisms into their company culture.
Now, every time a child receives a meal from the hospital cafeteria, they also receive their own napkin note, letting them know that there’s someone out there thinking about them and rooting for them. Billy still writes napkin notes to his own children from his kitchen counter each day, but now, he sends photos of his notes to Birmingham-based Cornerstone Media, who then prints the photos and sends them to Children’s.
“It goes beyond just the message [of the napkins],” says Garland Stansell, Chief Communication Officer for Children’s. “Being at Children’s hospital, you’re not only treating the patient, but you’re treating the family, too. And I think these notes have a big impact on that. Helping those children and those families know that someone is thinking of them — that’s a big deal.”
Looking back on how Napkinisms grew from a tradition within his family to a regional movement that has now impacted countless kids, Billy says he never could have imagined how such a small gesture would take on a life of its own.
“It’s the idea of ‘I’m here to do more than just my job’,” Billy says while considering how much Children’s has embraced Napkinisms. “I would love to template this program and make it available to every children’s hospital, but I think it takes a special organization to make it work — an organization that really embraces the bigger idea. Children’s does that.”
Billy recently spoke at CreativeMornings Birmingham, a monthly lecture series hosted by the globally based CreativeMornings organization. During his presentation, he showed a few napkin notes that were delivered to Children’s of Alabama. What Billy didn’t know at the time was one audience member had already seen those notes — a rehab nurse from Children’s.
After the presentation, the nurse was moved to thank the man who brightened the days of the kids she guided through rehabilitation each day. Billy says. “She came up to me and had huge tears in her eyes, and said, ‘those are my babies’.”
The writing, printing and dispersion of the notes is the simple part, Billy says. Anyone can do that. But making a lasting impact on a child who needs to be reminded of how much they’re valued? That, he says, is what Napkinisms is really all about.