By Lauren H. Dowdle
Photos by Blair Ramsey
Words have the power to inspire, whether written in a book, told in a short film or scribbled on a napkin and put in a child’s lunchbox. Just ask Billy Ivey.
Born and raised in Franklin, Tennessee, Billy moved to Alabama for college to attend Samford University. He now lives in Oak Mountain with his wife, Bethany, and they have five children ages 15, 16, 18, 19 and 23.
When his oldest was in kindergarten, Billy began writing her notes on the napkins she took in her lunch to school each day. That tradition continued with all of his children. He sent messages ranging from saying he loved them and wishing them luck on a test to something silly to make them smile like these:
“Stop taking my phone charger, and I’ll stop taking you to school in my underwear.”
“I’m always here to help you. Unless it involves lifting heavy things. Or math.”
“Find someone who is not smiling, and give them one of yours.”
After a while, Billy says he thought it would be fun to post a picture of one of the napkins on Instagram, but he wasn’t expecting the level of engagement his posts would bring. From the likes, comments and shares, to the personal messages he received online, Billy heard from people across the country how his notes had inspired them.
“I never intended anyone else to even see them, let alone be inspired by them,” Billy says. “I found it fascinating because I was just doing something I always tried to do: make my kids laugh and smile.”
Though his children didn’t often vocalize their appreciation of the notes, their actions showed how much the messages meant to them. One of his daughters kept every single napkin under her bed. Another told him she missed getting them after she moved out, so Billy now sends her a text every day in its place.
Though the response about his napkins came as a surprise, creating content was nothing new for Billy. He worked as an advertising writer for companies such as Home Depot and Chick-fil-A, yet he’d never experienced the level of response he received from his disposable notes.
“After nearly 30 years in advertising, I’m seeing what really matters and how we can be used to do what we love and what we’re gifted with,” Billy says. “What God has called me to do is write stuff. The thing I love the most is telling stories.”
His “passion project” also led to an unexpected crossover with his professional life when he was asked to write napkin messages for the Chick-fil-A Foundation. The organization provides lunches to children at inner-city schools during their summer programs, and they wanted to include Billy’s napkins. The foundation ended up sharing 3,000 of his notes that first summer. Ten thousand notes have been shared over time.
“It was really cool to hear the stories that came out of that,” Billy says. “The kids were squealing when they saw them and would trade notes—even bypassing the nuggets to read them. Their parents were getting to see the notes, too.”
With the excitement from the partnership also came the self-imposed pressure of coming up with messages for all of the napkins. During the times when he didn’t think he could keep up with the demand, one of his friends shared a quote from Brad Montague, the creator of Kid President: “Even a small message, when crafted in love, will find where it needs to be.”
That helped Billy take the stress off of himself and realize it wasn’t what he was writing but the fact that he was writing. Following that partnership, Billy was also asked to write notes for Children’s of Alabama. More than 400 of his notes went out each day at the hospital until the start of COVID. After that, it was clear his engaging messages were here to stay, and Napkinisms became the platform he didn’t intend to create.
“I was never supposed to quit my advertising job to write on napkins. I’m completely baffled that this has become something,” he says. “It just speaks to the universal need that we all have to be encouraged and inspired.”
In addition to reading his notes, people can also share their own napkin-worthy messages by submitting them on the Napkinisms website. Billy then writes them on napkins and posts the images online for others to see and enjoy.
“I’m not called to do big things. I’m called to write messages on napkins,” Billy says. “You don’t have to do something grand to do something great.”
Stories of Hope
However, he soon learned napkins weren’t the only way he was meant to engage with others. A friend approached Billy to see if he’d be interested in writing a book. It would profile the life of Yosely Pereira, who constructed a raft and escaped from communist Cuba.
After talking with Yosely, Billy says he knew he wanted to help share his story and began working with him. The book, “A Sea Between Us,” came out last summer and is available online and through bookstores.
“It’s his story of hope, redemption and coming to grips with what freedom really is,” Billy says.
Following the book’s release, Billy started working on another book. His fraternity brother from college, Greg Mixon, told him about Alton Hardy—an African American preacher in Fairfield who grew up in the Jim Crow South. The book highlighting Alton’s life is set to come out this summer, and Billy says he thinks people will really be drawn to it.
“Alton has such a powerful story,” Billy says. “He wants to be a light in the dark places. It’s a story about reconciliation. He believes we’re all created equal and that we’re supposed to be living in unity. Until we reconcile with each other, that won’t happen.”
Realizing the power stories have, Billy and Greg decided to start a production company called Small Stories Studio. Their goal is to tell the true stories of hope and redemption through books and film. One project they’re working on is a short film about James Harris, who is opening a grocery store in Fairfield to help serve the community.
Billy says their hope for this content studio is not only to tell the seemingly small stories, but also to change the perspectives and inspirations of others to bring big change.
“Everyone is living a small story, and they want to see how their small stories connect to others,” Billy says. “We want to create a platform for others to tell their stories. Your story may be small, but it can make a big difference. I want people to know they aren’t alone and that someone out there cares about them.”
Learn more about all of Billy’s projects at napkinisms.com and smallstoriesstudio.com.