Pennsylvania family starts pay-it-forward movement in honour of late daughter

Nadine Kalinauskas
Good News

On September 3, Pennsylvania teen Alyssa O'Neill texted her parents, asking them to take her for a pumpkin spiced latte the next day.

The 18-year-old high school senior, who had been diagnosed with epilepsy a year earlier, died the next morning after suffering a grand mal seizure in the shower.

Two days after her funeral, her parents, Jason and Sarah O'Neill, bought 40 pumpkin spiced lattes for unsuspecting customers at a Starbucks in Erie, Pennsylvania. They requested that each cup have the hashtag #AJO, for Alyssa Josephine O'Neill, be written on it with purple marker.

The Starbucks manager and employees were so moved by the gesture, they donated an additional 50 lattes.

"There isn't a protocol for when you lose a child," Jason O'Neill told the Erie Times-News. "We didn't know what to do or how to do it. But we knew that lying in bed and crying didn't feel good. We wanted to feel good and honour Alyssa's memory."

The O'Neills' act of kindness has since spread through coffee shops across the world, with people posting #AJO photos online from countries including Afghanistan, Italy, Iceland, China and Sri Lanka.

#AJO has gone viral on Twitter.

The Facebook page "AJO Forever in our Hearts" has 30,000 likes.

"It just took off like wildfire," said Sarah.

"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 told TODAY. "We're still in disbelief, and every time we think, 'There's no way they can top this,' something more amazing happens."

The pay-it-forward movement has gone beyond free coffees.

"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," Jason said.

On September 14, students at McDowell High School, where Alyssa was a cheerleader, wore purple at their football game to honour Alyssa's memory — purple is the colour of epilepsy awareness — and gave her parents a 15-minute standing ovation.

"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."

The O'Neills have started the AJO Forever Fund with two goals:

"We plan to set up a fund to benefit families who have to travel to Pittsburgh for treatment for their children, and a fund to help cheerleaders who want to become nurses," Jason told the Erie Times-News.

"All of this is happening because of Alyssa," Sarah told TODAY. "This just might have been her purpose."

(Photo from AJO Forever in our Hearts Facebook Page)