Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Family Pays it Forward in memory of their daughter Alyssa Josephine O'Neill #AJO

Eighteen year old Alyssa Josephine O'Neill suddenly died on September 4th from an epileptic seizure. But her parents have found a way to keep the memory of their oldest daughter alive. 
It's a story that centers around coffee, and paying it forward. And it's spreading around the world through social media.
"The night before my daughter died, she said to me, 'Mommy, can we go get a pumpkin spiced latte? I've never had one.' And I said, 'Absolutely, we'll go.'"
"We never got that chance," said Sarah O'Neill, Alyssa's mom.
But instead, Sarah and Jason got lattes for strangers.
People who ordered a pumpkin spice latte at the Millcreek Mall Starbuck's were told that it was already paid for, in memory of Alyssa. They asked only for recipients to pass the act of kindness on to someone else.
#AJO, Alyssa's initials, was written on these cups - in purple, the color representing epilepsy awareness.
"It just took off like wildfire," said Sarah.
#AJO has been tagged in more than 13,200 photos on Instagram alone. The photos appear from countries around the world, as far away as Australia, Germany, and Mexico. 
The Facebook page, "AJO Forever in Our Hearts," has 9,500 fans, and counting. Tweets hashtagged #AJO reached hundreds per hour. 
It seems to be a message that strikes a chord within people. 

"Every day, I think nothing is going to top that," said Sarah. "I said to him (Jason) last night, I don't know what's going to happen next. Because it's beyond your wildest dreams." 
Alyssa's family says that passing on kindness was a part of her character.
"She was just always really excited, in a good mood, and fun," said Brittany Lyon, Alyssa's cousin. Just always a really positive person." 
"She was constantly helping friends out. If you look at all of her pictures, she's smiling in every one," says Jason, Alyssa's dad. "I think what Alyssa did, was that she made everybody around her a better person. I know she made us better people," Jason said, gesturing to Sarah and himself.
#AJO is about remembering Alyssa, but it's just as much about raising awareness for the condition that took her life.
"There are not many other diseases where you can just be walking down the street, fall over... and possibly die," said Jason. "That's the worry we dealt with every day." 
50,000 people die from epilepsy yearly in the United States. That's more than breast cancer, prescription overdoes, or drunk driving.  
But the epilepsy diagnosis last year did not hold Alyssa back. 
"I was terrified. If Alyssa was scared, she didn't let on," said Sarah.
She continued to cheerlead at McDowell High School, then started her freshman year of college at Penn State Beherend, living life to the fullest. 
And she lives on, through #AJO. 
"There has been nothing but love and kindness from everyone," said Jason. It's the one thing that's helped us get through all of this and kept us going."