I am from Erie, Pennsylvania. It is a small city that only makes the news because the amount of snow we get. But in the last few weeks Erie has been getting national and international recognition because of social media. Social media has become a part of our everyday life, but not regarded as a good way to make a difference or bring about social change. There are a few exceptions to this, but for the most part your feed is filled with a multitude of things just to pass time or that you skip over. Plus scrolling through millions of tweets and posts can be daunting at best. That’s why the following story is so incredible, especially the sheer reach and the speed in which it has caught on.
1. Story. Alyssa O’Neill was a typical 18 year old. She loved football, was a cheerleader and was currently studying to become a nurse. She also had epilepsy. After enduring a seizure, Alyssa lost her life on September 4th of this year. On the day of the accident, she was planning to try her very first Starbucks Pumpkin Spiced latte with her parents. The tragedy prompted her parents to find a way to honor their daughter. They went to Starbucks and bought a gift card to pay for customers’ pumpkin lattes. Their only request was that the hash tag #AJO was written on the cups that were purchased. They thought this would be a small gesture to bring recognition to their daughter. This small gesture quickly grew beyond that one Starbucks in Erie, PA. Starbucks employees joined in matching the donations and what happened after that no one could have predicted.
2. The message grows. Soon after the hashtag #AJO  was appearing on Starbucks cups, restaurant receipts and just about every local business. Alyssa’s parents Sarah and Jason O’Neill created a Facebook page and images and stories quickly started to appear on the page. It was becoming apparent that the simple lesson of paying it forward and spreading the message of this amazing girls life was truly touching a community. However as the pictures continued to be posted it was amazing how far reaching the message clearly had traveled. Individuals were posting from all over the country and from across the globe. At this point their Facebook page has over 20,455 likes and it has only be created for a little over 3 weeks.
3. The power of a hashtag. When you say the word hashtag you will get a different response from everyone. Sometimes they can be funny, sometimes they make absolutely no sense and sometimes they are trending. But to think of a hashtag as a powerful tool of change may not enter into peoples minds. So the fact that this message has reached the globe only by the power of a hashtag is an unbelievable achievement. With marketers, companies and celebrities obsessed with the idea of getting as many followers as possible it’s a wonderful to see that such a social media movement could be created by average people in a small town, probably never expecting the effect their daughter would have.
4. Her legacy. With this movement far reaching it has started a dialogue about epilepsy and the it’s dangers. The cause has quickly grown and has made our small town a much closer community and has brought us together. With a lot of our population not even knowing what a hashtag was before this they are now wearing T-shirts, making signs or creating a Facebook for the sole purpose of being a part of this movement. We may never know all the people she has touched or lives she has helped but with social media we can start to get an idea.
5. Future. With the increasing number of people involved and wanting to help this shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon. Her parents are doing an amazing job in the face of such a tragedy and now managing a social media explosion nobody could have expected. They have kept up on her Facebook page responding to messages, posting updates and handling the media attention with an great amount of love, compassion and hope. They have also started to expand their message by adding a donations to their daughters Facebook  memorial page. It will be amazing to see just how far their message will be felt.
Social media with all it’s faults always has been a way to make sure everyone has a voice. No matter where you live or who you are you know have the ability to potentially reach 100’s, 1,000’s or millions of people. So as we tweet pictures of our cats and our fantasy football scores, let’s also take a minute to remember that something as simple as typing a # can truly bring about change & awareness.
To learn more about this story or learn what you can do to help, please visit  https://www.facebook.com/AJOforeverinourhearts or search #AJO on Twiiter, Facebook and Instagram.