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College student’s death sparks ‘pay it forward’ movement


Some Starbucks cups are sporting the letters #AJO in memory of Alyssa Josephine O’Neill.
Credit: Photo illustration by Shelby Lum / Photo editor

Some Starbucks cups are sporting a three-letter message unrelated to the cup’s content these days: #AJO.

These are the initials of Alyssa Josephine O’Neill, a Pennsylvania State University-Behrend student who died of an epileptic seizure Sept. 4.

“She was a beautiful soul, and she was very energetic and outgoing,” said Mackenzie Presta, a second-year in psychology at Ohio State who went to high school with O’Neill. “You know those people you can connect to and who make you feel very comfortable, and she was definitely one of those people.”

One of O’Neill’s last tweets before her untimely death asked her mother if they could go to Starbucks to get a Pumpkin Spice Latte. After her death, her parents bought 40 of the drinks their daughter never got to try, which they proceeded to give away to the next 40 people who walked in at the Millcreek Mall in Erie, Pa.

Each cup had #AJO written on its side.

Back in Columbus, Presta and her roommate, who is also from Erie, Pa., bought 10 Pumpkin Spice Lattes to “pay it forward” to the next 10 people coming in to remember their former classmate.

The purchases by O’Neill’s parents started an international movement of people paying it forward in ways from coffee to restaurant bills and has caught the attention of celebrities like singer LeAnn Rimes, who tweeted from her account @leannrimes Sept. 28, “Random act of kindness #1 for the day, bought cupcakes for the crew of our show. Sweetest people ever! #AJO.”

The AJO Forever in our Hearts Facebook page, which seeks to raise epilepsy awareness and pay tribute to O’Neill, had more than 33,500 likes Monday evening.

Ellen Shirk, a second-year in architecture and a friend of Presta’s, jumped on the movement and paid it forward at the coffee shop, The Caffeine Element, in the Health Sciences Library. She said the movement has grown to be bigger than beverages.

“It’s definitely (about) more than just the coffee,” she said.

Kelly Bolt, an administrative associate in the Wexner Medical Center, received one of the lattes Shirk paid for and reached out to her on Twitter to thank her.

“I knew nothing about it. (I) didn’t know that somebody, at 18 years old, could die of something like this,” Bolt said. “I thought it was a great idea to bring awareness to not only this girl and to remember her, but to also bring awareness to the problem.”

O’Neill would be happy to know her memory is helping to educate others about her disease, Presta said.

“I know she was such a loving person that she would be doing it right here, too, if it was for someone else,” she said.

Chelsea Spears contributed to this story.

One comment

  1. Pay it forward! It is so sad to lose our young ones.

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