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One year after Tops supermarket shooting, friends and family honor victim with scholarship fund

One year after a mass shooting at a Tops supermarket devastated a Black community in Buffalo, New York, one victim is being memorialized through the gift of education.

Friends and former colleagues spearheaded a scholarship fund for local high school students to help pay for college expenses in honor of Aaron Salter, the security guard who worked at Tops and was one of the 10 individuals killed. Named the Lt. Aaron Salter Memorial Scholarship, the fund provides $5,000 scholarships to 10 graduating high school seniors from schools throughout Buffalo.

Earl Perrin Jr., Salter’s longtime friend and colleague of 10 years at the Buffalo Police Department, organized the scholarship following Salter’s death. Perrin said Salter, who died after running inside Tops to warn others about the gunman, “gave his life trying to save others.

“Because of his heroism, and because we knew what kind of person he was, we felt it would only be just to find a way to memorialize him — come up with some way to keep his legacy going,“ Perrin said.

Perrin runs the scholarship fund alongside Brad Pitts and Nate Goldsmith, who all are on the executive board and share a close connection with Salter. Pitts said he grew up with Salter, going to basketball and football games, and hanging out at each other’s houses.

“He was one of our own,“ Perrin said. “Not just a police officer. Not just a Black person. Not just a man. But he was one of Buffalo’s own.“

A person touches the casket of Aaron Salter Jr. during a funeral service in Getzville, N.Y., on May 25, 2022.Joshua Bessex / AP file

Pitts said he explained how to become a police officer to Salter, when he first expressed interest in the job. Pitts said he was surprised that Salter, who had an interest in technology, showed interest in policing, but Pitts saw that the community involvement “drew him into it,” he said.

“Aaron always was concerned with giving back and finding a way to be able to interact with the community,” Pitts said.

The scholarship committee originally sought to raise $1,000 for the scholarship, Perrin said, but an influx of donations increased the scholarship to $5,000 for each student. Several local businesses have donated to the fund, including Paddock Chevrolet, a car dealership that agreed to contribute $25,000 a year for the next four years. Former Buffalo Bills players Steve Pasker, Thurman Thomas and Bruce Smith have also volunteered to do commercials and other endorsements for the fund.

Students selected for the scholarship must demonstrate Salter’s qualities, who was technologically savvy and engaged in community involvement. Salter also created a hydrogen powered engine, Perrin said, “to save the everyday person money,” and even presented his idea to Shark Tank

Cashell Durham, Salter’s sister, said he acquired his inventive qualities from their father, who would rebuild engines. Durham, who lives in Buffalo, said the scholarship is “a great way of remembering my brother.”

Salter had a bright personality that lit up the room, Durham added, and that she misses their close-knit relationship.

“Me and him were really close,” Durham said. “He would text me almost everyday wishing me a good day at work.”

Cashell, who lives just a few blocks away from Tops, said she hasn’t returned to the store since her brother’s death because she would go “just because he was there.” She also wants people to remember her brother as a good person.

“He wouldn’t hurt anybody,” she said. “He was just a good guy. And just remember the smile on his face. He didn’t let much get him down.” 

Through the scholarship the foundation also aims to provide mentorship opportunities for local youth, along with mental health and financial literacy services. They also aim to increase the number of scholarships distributed to high school students.

While Salter’s friends and family said his death took a toll on the community, the scholarship brings a hopeful light.

“Things have been tough,” Pitts said, “but it’s brighter than it is dimmer.”

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