The story of Alyssa Josephine O’Neill – now known to the world as #AJO – starts ten years ago.
Ten years ago Starbucks created its iconic pumpkin spice latte (PSL,) a drink that has inspired pumpkin spice products from cookies to candles, and is considered by many to be a hallmark tradition of fall. This year, Starbucks is celebrating the anniversary of the PSL. What Starbucks probably never expected, however, is how much one girl’s story would intertwine with their sales.
First-year nursing student at Penn State Behrend, Alyssa J. O’Neill lived at home with her parents who drove her to and from campus. O’Neill could not drive herself due to her epilepsy diagnosis, which is a disease that causes seizures in those afflicted. On Sept. 3, she texted her parents asking to get a pumpkin spice latte, which she had never had; unfortunately, they never got to fulfill her wish. O’Neill suffered from an epileptic seizure that day, and later passed away.
Two days after her funeral, her parents decided to honorably fulfill her wish by paying it forward. This act of paying it forward began when O’Neill’s parents went to a local Starbucks and pre-purchased the next 40 pumpkin spice lattes for customers, only asking in return that the baristas simply write “#AJO” on the cups. Touched by the action, the baristas contributed 50 more.
The phenomena has continued among the public ever since. No one may know how many pumpkin spice lattes have been purchased, but the impact of this movement has no doubt reached far and wide.
All over the world people have been purchasing coffees, movie tickets, and even paying off hair appointments and store layaways for others. The movement has garnered attention from The Huffington Post, The Daily Mail, and many other news sources. Thousands of people tweet, post Facebook statuses and Instagram pictures with the hashtags #AJO, #PSL and #PayItForward every day. The Gannon community has been a part of the movement as well, purchasing coffees for one another at Doc’s Landing and the nearby Starbucks.
Though the actions are small and typically anonymous, they have brought awareness not only to O’Neill’s life, but to epilepsy as well; a disease that she was hoping to help others with someday as a nurse.
Ten years from now Starbucks will likely celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the pumpkin spice latte; and whether it is advertised or not, there is a girl and a movement that are a part of that history – a movement that may still continue to that day, and the story of Alyssa Josephine O’Neill that began right here in Erie.