‘Pay it forward’ lives on: Memorial hashtag raises epilepsy awareness

Sept. 4 marked the oneyear anniversary of the passing of Alyssa Josephine O’Neil, a student at Penn State Behrend.  She suffered from epilepsy and unexpectedly died of a seizure.

In this tragedy, Alyssa was remembered with a purple hashtag that started at Starbucks and made its way across the world.  The purple is linked to epilepsy as its awareness color, and the hashtag were Alyssa’s initials: ajo.

A “pay-it-forward” movement started with pumpkin spice lattes.  On Alyssa’s memorial Facebook page, her father presents a video explaining how she had requested the Starbucks fall flavor the night before she passed.

In her memory, her parents paid for 40 pumpkin spiced lattes for Starbucks customers. They requested that “#ajo” be written on the cup in order to raise awareness.  Her father said searching the tag on Instagram links to thousands of examples of what’s been done to remember Alyssa O’Neil.

A year later, the hashtag holds 40,713 and counting connected posts on Instagram.  Alyssa’s memorial Twitter page has 9,336+ followers, and her Facebook page has 46,948+ “likes.” She also has an official website, ajoforever.com, where positive publicity for the hashtag and epilepsy are shared.

It didn’t end when their contribution ran out, however.  People started paying for the person behind of them to keep the trend going.

Gannon University students encountered it only blocks away from campus at the State Street Starbucks and Ye Olde Sweet Shoppe.

An Erie community fund, the AJO Forever Fund, takes charitable donations in Alyssa’s memory.

It got even further than Erie, though.  Her initials were worn in an awareness ribbon by then Pittsburgh Penguins’ head coach Dan Bylsma.  The country group, Zac Brown Band, dedicated their song “free” to Alyssa at a concert in Dec. Dec. 9, 2013,  marked House Resolution 538 as a law.  This stated that November is Pennsylvania’s Epilepsy Awareness month and July 27 was declared as AJO Pay it Forward Day.

Natalie Yurkovic, a sophomore undecided science major, attended high school with Alyssa at McDowell and was struck by her loss just like anyone else who knew her.  She described Alyssa as an optimist.

“She was one those people that was just always happy,” Yurkovic said.  “She tried to find the good side in everything.”

Yurkovic said she was one of Alyssa’s mutual friends, and she remembers taking gym classes together.

Alyssa’s father stressed that the hashtag movement was about bringing out the good in people, just the way that his daughter did.

Yurkovic believes Alyssa would’ve done something similar if the roles were reversed.

“She would try to start something in their memory, even if it were, say, her boyfriend’s mother,” Yurkovic said.

She was surprised, however, at how well received it was.

“It pretty much went all around the world,” she said.  “It definitely took us by surprise.  I thought it was going to stay locally but [the hashtag] went to Uruguay, Germany and Australia.  The cool part is it all raised awareness for epilepsy.”

 

KELSEY GHERING

[email protected]