On the last day of her life, Pennsylvania teenager Alyssa O’Neill texted her parents with a simple request: That they take her for a pumpkin spiced latte the next day.
But on Sept. 4, the 18-year-old died of an epileptic seizure, just a year after being diagnosed with the condition.
Two days after the funeral for their eldest of their four children, Jason and Sarah O'Neill decided to pay it forward in her memory.
At a Starbucks in Erie, Penn., the O'Neills bought pumpkin spiced lattes for 40 people, asking that the hashtag #AJO, for Alyssa Josephine O’Neill, be written in purple marker on the cups.
“We told the manager why, and all the employees were moved, so they all donated drinks until we had bought drinks for 90 people,’’ Jason O’Neill told TODAY.com.
Thanks to social media, the small act of kindness spread and has inspired strangers to honor Alyssa at coffee shops across the world.
“My wife and I have said the words, ‘amazing,’ ‘awesome,’ and ‘magical’ more than we ever have in our entire lives. We never thought it would spread like this," Jason said. "We're still in disbelief, and every time we think, ‘There's no way they can top this,’ something more amazing happens.”
Alyssa, a high school cheerleader who was preparing to enter freshman year at The Behrend College, aspired to be a nurse to help others with epilepsy.
“Her death was a complete shock,’’ Jason said. “We were driving her to school every day because she couldn’t drive as a result of her condition, and we thought that by having her at home, we could keep her as safe as possible. It still didn't work out as we wanted it to.”
People have posted #AJO photos from as far away as Afghanistan, Italy, Iceland, China, and Sri Lanka, he said. The Facebook page “AJO Forever in our Hearts’’ has more than 20,000 likes, and #AJO has gone viral on Twitter and beyond.
“You really can't go anywhere in Erie or the surrounding areas without seeing it,’’ Jason said. “Every restaurant, every coffee shop — we haven't been able to buy ourselves a meal in a week or two because it’s already paid for.
“People have paid for people's coffees and then thought, ‘What else can I do?’ They would pay for movie tickets, or go to Toys ‘R’ Us and pay off random people's layaways for their kids' Christmas presents. It's nice to know that one small act of kindness and a little help from social media can spark all of this.”
On Sept. 14, students at McDowell wore purple, Alyssa’s favorite color, and gave her parents a 15-minute standing ovation at the school’s football game.
James Conner, a McDowell graduate and freshman running back at the University of Pittsburgh, served as a pallbearer at Alyssa’s funeral and dedicated a two-touchdown performance to her with “AJO” written on his wrist earlier this month.
Musician Michael Franti has spoken about the #AJO movement at his shows, and NFL Hall of Famer Dan Marino tweeted about it.
The family has started the AJO Forever Fund with two goals: A scholarship fund to benefit local cheerleaders in Erie looking to go into nursing, and to help families of children with epilepsy.
“We remembered all the times we had to travel to Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh to stay for a few days for testing, and we would have to book a hotel room in the middle of the night, which is not the most affordable thing to do in a big city,’’ Jason said. “A lot of families are not able to do these things, so their kids are going down there (to the hospital) themselves and often are waiting for the medication. I couldn’t imagine having a son or daughter have to wait weeks for medications.”
While the family mourns Alyssa, the pay-it-forward movement has ensured that her memory will live on.
“All of this is happening because of Alyssa,’’ Sarah O’Neill said. “This just might have been her purpose.”