A few days after an 18-year-old college freshman from Erie died after apparently suffering a seizure in the shower, her parents went to a coffee shop to honor her memory and in the process triggered a social media campaign on epilepsy.
Jason O'Neill said Wednesday the original idea was simply to buy some coffee for strangers at a local Starbucks in memory of his daughter Alyssa, who sent her mother a text on Sept. 4, the night she died, asking if they could get a pumpkin latte together the next morning.
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The couple's only request was that the coffee shop use a purple marker he brought along to write her initials with a hash tag on each cup: "(hash)ajo.'' If anyone asks, just tell them Alyssa's story, they said.
"We figured that if we made 10 people smile, or get people coffee that Alyssa didn't have, it was kind of a way for us to grieve a little bit without staying in the house and being sad,'' said O'Neill, who manages a car dealership in Erie. "We had no idea it would get this big.''
He and his wife Sarah shot a video outside the coffee shop and posted it online. Things took off from there. Now, there are images of people buying meals, drinks and other items for people they don't know, with "(hash)ajo'' on receipts or packages.
O'Neill said the goal is to raise awareness — and maybe money for research — about epilepsy, the disease his daughter spoke openly about but was determined would not define her as a person.
The campaign has generated 26,000 Facebook "likes'' and a Twitter feed with 8,600 followers, and her parents have established a fund for epilepsy and a scholarship for nursing students. Alyssa was a student at Penn State-Behrend.
They are also encouraging people to "pay it forward'' by doing something to help others.
O'Neill said apparently his daughter, who lived in an apartment in the basement of their home, had decided to take a late-night shower when she suffered a seizure. She may have hit her head, and then her hair blocked the drain.
Alyssa, an honor student and a competitive cheerleader, was known for her bright disposition, her father said.
"There's thousands of photos of her out there, and I dare anyone to find one where she's not smiling,'' he said. "She was a happy kid.''