By Lauren Helmer
My father changed my life one day when he wrote me a note, and the significance of that note really set my compass for the rest of my life,” said Oak Mountain resident Billy Ivey.
“When I was 14, he was diagnosed with ALS, and when I was 15, I got cut from the basketball team. And I was devastated, because my father was a great athlete,” Ivey said.
“I came home, and he said, ‘There’s nothing you can do on that basketball court to make me love you any more; there’s nothing you could do to make me love you any less. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. You are perfect, because you are my son,’ Ivey remembers.
“Then, that night he wrote me a very simple note to try to give me some perspective and make me feel better the next day, and I’ve memorized it.”
Today is your day. Nothing or no one can make your day anything other than what you want it to be. If the weather calls for rain, decide now that you will enjoy being wet. If a test score is low, decide that you will work harder and the next one will be higher. If treated unfairly for something, smile for all of the many things you’ve not been caught for. Attitude is everything. Today is not yet anything, so fill it with laughter.
“He passed away right before my 16th birthday. And I kept the note with me for a long time,” said Ivey.
“He wasn’t trying to change my life; he was just trying to change my day, and he did and he does over and over again,” Ivey said. “That message meant a lot to me on that day when I was 15, but it means a lot more to me now.”
Fast-forward to today: Ivey’s wooden kitchen table is peppered with Sharpie stains from his 15-year morning ritual.
“Ever since my daughter was in preschool, I’d put a little note in her lunchbox just communicating simple messages to let her know that, basically, daddy loves you,” said Ivey, whose napkin notes of fatherly love for his five kids are often hilarious.
Ivey, who worked in advertising and marketing for 20 years, has used this gift from his father to launch his own business, Napkinisms. Now he’s written a book, does speaking engagements, sells his napkins online and freelances as a marketer.
He also partners with corporate sponsors to provide napkin messages to children who may be in particular need of a smile.
An Accidental Sensation
Perhaps the beginning of that business was the morning Ivey put Sharpie to Bounty paper towel, as usual, and penned, “Remember, every time you smile, a mean kid gets diarrhea.”
“I thought it was funny, so I took a picture of it and sent them off to school with their notes just like I do every day. I posted it to Instagram, and people just sort of went nuts for it.” said Ivey.
The lunchbox notes went viral. Thousands of people began sharing, commenting and sending him letters. He was blown away.
“I thought it was fascinating because for 20 years, I’ve been in advertising and marketing trying to get people to respond in the way they were responding to me writing stupid stuff on a napkin!”
Teachers were printing out Ivey’s Napkinisms to give to students when they needed a pick-me-up. Woman’s Day magazine wrote an article about it. Samford invited Ivey to give a TEDx talk and more speaking engagements followed.
Then the Chick-fil-A Foundation asked Ivey to write 300 Napkinism notes for its summer lunch program for kids in need. He received a call after the first batch of notes went out.
“They said, ‘You’re not going to believe this. It was incredible,” Ivey recalls. “The people who were packing the notes into the lunches were laughing, crying, taking pictures of the notes so they could share them. And then the kids were running around, waving their notes, screaming and squealing.”
Ten thousand notes have since been shared through that program. Children’s of Alabama also has implemented such a program, sharing 400 napkin notes each day.
“It’s changed my heart. I never thought I’d have the opportunity to partner with a hospital,” said Ivey. “To see an image of a kid with his head bandaged and with tubes coming out of his body holding up a note that says, ‘I bet you can’t say, ‘I am awesome’ 50 times before lunch is over.’ And then to hear the story that he tried. … You know, it’s neat to think that, because of something I did at my kitchen table, that kid sat there in his hospital bed and said, ‘I am awesome. I am awesome. I am awesome.’ Nothing thrills my soul more.”
Small Acts, Big Impact
Ivey marvels that a small, intentional act done in love can have such a powerful impact.
“Each of us has the opportunity to do something small that could potentially make a big difference,” said Ivey. “What is it that you can do? How are you going to show up? Follow those warm-hearted impulses you have. You don’t have to do something grand to do something great.”
When asked what makes a good father, Ivey said that, for him, it’s intentionality and being present, showing your kids that they are loved unconditionally, as his dad did for him with a simple note. He’s taken that love and shared it not only with his kids, but with thousands of kids.
“I get pretty laser-focused on my kids, but Napkinisms has opened me up to seeing that we are not alone. We are all in this thing together,” said Ivey.
“Everybody needs to feel loved and encouraged. I think that’s an innate need that we all share, but kids especially. Kids need to be reminded, like my dad told me, that they are fearfully and wonderfully made and perfect, because they are.”