Napkinisms make big difference for kids at Children’s Hospital and beyond

Napkinisms make big difference for kids at Children’s Hospital and beyond
No one was more surprised at the success of Napkinisms than the creator, Birmingham resident Billy Ivey. His messages – some humorous, some uplifting, and some snarky, but always fun – are making a difference in the lives of young patients at Children's of Alabama. For the past six months, thousands of Children's patients have enjoyed seeing Napkinisms delivered with their meals. Here, Ivey holds a sack of Napkinisms he wrote to his daughter throughout the years, which she keeps in her closet. (Donna Cope/Alabama NewsCenter)

It doesn’t take much effort to lift someone’s spirits: A smile, a joke or a compliment go a long way.

Through his handwritten notes, Billy Ivey daily sends a gesture of kindness, caring or a smile each day to thousands of people – from sick kids at Children’s Hospital in Birmingham to underserved kids at an Atlanta nonprofit to his following of more than 14,000 on Instagram.

Ivey’s messages resonate with youngsters, teens and adults alike: “You’ve got a great smile, you should use it more often.” Some thoughts teeter on the snarky range: “You’ve got something on your face. Nope. Sorry. That’s just your face.”

From the modest beginnings of writing notes for his five children’s lunches each morning, Ivey’s Napkinisms have turned into a big deal.

Since January 2019, every patient at Children’s Hospital has received a Napkinism with their meal. An average of 175 children a day receive a Napkinism, said Garland Stansell, chief communications officer at Children’s Hospital.

The messages provide a life rope, of sorts, to patients and their families.

“We’ve loved this. It’s a way to show these patients and their families that people care beyond their medical care,” said Stansell, who has worked at Children’s for 25 years. “Unlike the care provided adult patients, the care we provide is family-centered care that extends from the patients to parents and family members. Napkinisms is a great fit for our culture.”

Napkinisms from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

After hearing Ivey speak at a professional association meeting, Stansell believed the messaging provided through Napkinisms would mesh well with the goals of Children’s employee service organization. He asked Ivey to speak to the employee group in May 2018.

Stansell queried, ‘Why aren’t we using Napkinisms at Children’s?’ and a mission and partnership were born between Ivey, Children’s and Cornerstone Media Group of Birmingham.

Ivey monthly pools his messages and sends them for vetting to Stansell, along with two members of Children’s food-service staff and Cornerstone Media Group.

“We try to keep the messages as generic and positive as possible,” Stansell said. “Some of the humor kind of pokes fun at food, and some patients are struggling with taste because of illness or cancer treatments, so we keep that in mind.

“We love the partnership with Billy,” Stansell said. “This fits so well with our culture. The messages say something that makes the children know that someone cares, and it brings them a smile that day. As much or more so, it’s encouragement in touching the family members. It’s more far-reaching than we’d expected. We’ve been really pleased, and get good feedback.”

To Stansell’s knowledge, Children’s is the nation’s only hospital to employ this type of program.

For Ivey, the messages are a way of ensuring that every kid at Children’s receives a message of hope and inspiration at every meal.

“It has been really special to see how families are impacted and see how kids with these unfathomable illnesses are lifted up,” he said. “I can’t say enough good about Cornerstone Media Group and what they do to help.”

Messages start a social media revolution

Ivey, a Birmingham native, never dreamed that his daily habit of sharing a little love with his kids would extend across social media platforms and be shared with thousands of children each month.

Ivey and his wife, Bethany, have five children. The couple’s eldest daughter, Anna Beth, 19, just finished freshman year at the University of Alabama; Ben is 15 and a sophomore at Oak Mountain High School, where Merrie Cannon, 14, is a freshman; Abe, 12, is entering seventh grade at Oak Mountain Middle School; and Quinn will turn 11 on June 26, and will also be at the middle school next year.

From the time his children were small, Ivey took a few moments each morning to write a little message on a Post-it note or paper towel, and put it in their lunchbox. The thought could be as simple as “Daddy loves you.” Or, if his son was playing in a baseball game later that day, Ivey’s message might be “Play hard. You got this!” In March, Merrie Cannon had high school cheerleading tryouts and received a special message from her dad that day.

“There’s nothing revolutionary about it,” Ivey said. “I’ve been doing this since my eldest daughter was 4 years old, and I’m certainly not the only parent writing notes to his kids.”

It was a message to his son, Abe, that really got traction on social media: “Remember, every time you smile, a mean kid gets diarrhea.”

“All of the new kids said, ‘Your dad did that?’” Abe said, grinning. “Now, people look forward to what my note says each day … even my teachers.’”

Napkinisms# are born

From the time Ivey posted the first note to Instagram two years ago, the messaging grew by leaps and bounds. He immediately saw “like” after “like” after “like.”

“I don’t really care for the term ‘going viral,’ but that’s kind of what happened,” Ivey said. “A couple of hundred followers grew into thousands, then ten thousand, and on and on.”

“It was organic and began growing,” he said. “People would say, ‘I needed this today.’ It’s a fun way to add some positivity to the day.”

Around the end of the school year in 2016, Ivey got call from a friend, Jay Akins, about his Instagram. Akins works at Chic-fil-A’s corporate headquarters in Atlanta.

“He said, ‘I love what you’re doing, and you’re getting attention for being funny and smart and loving your kids,” Ivey said.

Since the school year was ending and Ivey would no longer be packing notes for his kids, Akins asked what Ivey would do during the summer: Would Napkinisms disappear?

Akins noted that the Chick-fil-A Foundation partners with charitable organizations in Atlanta that help children during summer and provides lunches to underserved schoolchildren during the school year.

“They wanted to know if I’d be willing to write some positive messages for these kids served by Chic-fil-A,” Ivey said.

The first week, Ivey wrote 300 notes.

“Jay called me back and told me the kids’ reactions. Then he said, ‘We need 900 Napkinisms next week,’” Ivey said, laughing. “I stayed up all hours of the night just working on writing notes.”

From those efforts, Napkinisms.com was born, allowing followers and visitors to the site to share their own thoughts for the kids. People can go to the site and add their own messages for consideration by the program. That summer, 3,000 notes were generated.

“It’s one of the most gratifying things I have ever been a part of,” Ivey said.

Working for the greater good

Several opportunities have arisen from the Napkinisms platform. A writer for 20 years, Ivey has always been in a creative field. An English major at Samford University who seriously considered teaching, Ivey worked in advertising as a copywriter.

“Part of my story is that I’ve spent my entire career searching for something, trying to figure out how to use the gifts I’ve been given,” he said. “In that search, I have moved all over the Southeast and worked for a lot of agencies, going from campaign to campaign to campaign.”

Ivey said that Napkinisms allowed him to realize that he can be used in many different ways to encourage and inspire people. Today, he is a freelance writer, consultant and brand manager, and has been writing a book the past year and a half.

“I get to travel around and talk about Napkinisms and how this story has changed my life,” Ivey said. “The heart of the message is, simply, ‘You don’t have to do something grand to do something great,’” he said. “I know that each and every day is a new opportunity to do something small that can potentially make a big difference in the lives of others.”

Ivey said that he understands that Napkinisms resonate with people, because “we all have the same, innate need to be encouraged.

“We all want to know that we are loved and that someone thinks we’re special,” he said.

He doesn’t view Napkinisms as being something great, and never knows who will see the messages or who needs to see them.

“I believe that a message crafted in love will find where it needs to be,” Ivey said, with a smile. “I hope my life could be a reflection of love and grace, no matter what … and hopefully, I get to keep doing that by writing silly stuff on napkins.”

Editor’s note: To submit a message – or a lot of messages – help Ivey’s campaign with Napkinisms by visiting www.napkinisms.com/submit. Follow Ivey on social media: @wrivey on Instagram and Twitter, and on Facebook at facebook.com/billyivey and facebook.com/napkinisms.

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