Grayson Shelp, Boy Scout

Mentors present our youth with great advantages in navigating through this often turbulent, rocky and scary road of life. Mentors provide suggestions based on a wealth of experience and information and for those who actually listen and follow some of this advice, they will eventually find themselves in a better place.

Organizations like Big Brothers, Big Sisters; Compeer of Greater Buffalo; and Our Lady of Hope Home School on the St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy campus are just a few of the many offering mentorships. The Compeer mission says it all: “The Compeer volunteer can be life changing.”

My dad, Anthony S. Billoni enjoying a Bisons at the downtown ballpark

Growing up in Kenmore, my dad was also my mentor.  He taught me important life lessons through conversations we had when I would drive with him on his dry-cleaning route more than 50 years ago, My dad was called by The Lord in 1998 and I miss him terribly.  That is the effect mentors can have on someone.

For 50 years my dad was the lone home delivery driver for Colvin Cleaners, which his older brother Phil and wife, Angeline, founded 90 years ago.  My brother Paul and his wife Cyndee have worked there for more than 40 years and now their children, Christopher and Erica are carrying on the tradition with Chris and Krissy’s 4-years-old son, Luca, soon to be our family’s fourth generation team member at the Kenmore business.

We may not have realized the wonderful lessons those one liners dad and mom said to us but it’s obvious many of them hit home.

My brothers and I all learned essential lessons from our dad, known to the employees at Mr. B. with mom affectionately referred to as Mrs. B.  We may not have realized the wonderful lessons those one liners dad and mom said to us but it’s obvious many of them hit home.  They always emphasized the importance of treating others like you would like to be treated.  While it seems like such a simple statement, can you imagine if everyone in the city, state or the country would practice that for one day?  What a better world it would be.

Dad also supported and encouraged us to get involved with the Boy Scouts as we grew up and today, the lessons learned as we worked towards the various merit badges seem invaluable.  I thought of my dad recently as I pulled up to Ace Hardware on Grand Island and saw a young boy, dressed in the full Boy Scout uniform and wearing a mask to protect him against the COVID-19 virus.  What impressed me was this young man was standing outdoors on a hot, sunny August afternoon and I soon learned he was there everyday from mid-August through Labor Day selling popcorn items for his scout troop.

It brought back another memorable memory of when my brother Paul and I would fill our wagon with boxes of $1.00 chocolates and go through the neighborhood selling enough to put us at the top of the list in sales for our troop.

I nodded to the Boy Scout as I walked past and into the store to make my purchase.  As I departed the store, I heard a soft voice saying: “Hello, would you like some delicious popcorn?” How could you say no?  That was all I needed to hear as I now made my way towards his table while forgetting about the time constraints I was under.

Once at his table, Grand Island’s young and extremely successful entrepreneur, had me, hook, line, and sinker as he began explaining, in great detail, the array of products from cheese popcorn to buttered microwave popcorn to caramel popcorn to large Buffalo Bills logoed tins of kettle corn to plastic containers of cashews. He always ended the pitch with the reason he was selling his popcorn products on those hot, summer afternoons: “Your purchase will help fund our Boy Scout Troop 630’s camping trips and items we need for the year.”  

Being a Clark Kent reporter at heart, I began interviewing the young man for no other reason than to learn what motivates him.

Being a Clark Kent reporter at heart, I began interviewing the young man for no other reason than to learn what motivates him to be out here selling when he could be doing something fun with his friends.  I quickly learned Grayson Shelp is an 11-years-young sixth-grade student at the Veronica E. Connor Middle School on Grand Island, where he is now carrying a 99-grade point average.  After graduating from Cub Scout Pack 425, he is in the first year of Boy Scouts and is at the second level of Tenderfoot.  Selling is his passion and in 2019 he sold $5,000 worth of popcorn items, mostly from outside Ace Hardware.  During the pandemic year of 2020 he surpassed that with $11,000 in sales, making him the No. 1 Cub Scout in sales in the Northeastern United States.  

Sales have ended for this year and his total is over $15,000 to more than 1,500 customers, family, and neighbors near his East River Road home where he founded his first business, Healthy Eats.  He has configured his wagon to become a delivery vehicle for vegetables grown in their backyard garden and sold to family and friends in the neighborhood.  

Grayson has configured his ‘Healthy Eats’ wagon to become a delivery vehicle for vegetables grown in their backyard garden and sold to family and friends in the neighborhood.

As a salesman, though, popcorn is his passion.  “I am serious when it comes to popcorn,” he says with certainty.

Why? What motivates you to be a Boy Scout? Where did you learn these sales techniques at such a young age?

“My dad,” he answered quickly and with authority. Taking a break from sales, the only child of Edwin and Kimberly Shelp explained his goal in scouting is to follow his dad’s footsteps and become an Eagle Scout, scouting’s highest honor.  His dad recently retired after a distinguished sales career in the Buffalo hotel industry.  It’s obvious he has also become his son’s mentor.

“I joined scouting because of my dad,” Grayson said proudly.  “He knows a lot of things that he learned as a scout and that is what I would like to do.”

Scott Swagler, the long-time scoutmaster of Troop 630 at St. Stephen’s Church, has only had Grayson in his troop a short time since he graduated from Cub Scouts last year.  

“With the help from his parents, he has been honing his selling skills for a few years and he has been the top popcorn seller in the Buffalo/Niagara Region for all the years he has been selling,” he said.  “Grayson is excited to be starting down the same path as his father and he experienced his first summer camp this year.

“But he loves to sell,” Swagler added.

Mia Villani, who has worked in her family’s Ace Hardware and Gui’s Lumber businesses for nearly half of her 25 years, said there will always be a job available at Ace for Grayson.

“He can have one right now if he wants it,” she said with admiration.  “Grayson is the most well-spoken, sweetest human being ever.  He is so adorable is probably the best way to describe him.  We are so impressed with how hard he works when he is here.  He is so passionate; he never complains, and he stands outside literally all day.

“He just loves selling his popcorn for the Boy Scouts,” added Villani, the general manager of the Ace Hardware Stores in Western New York which her family owns.

David M. Mazur, a self-made successful developer on the Island, had seen Grayson outside of Ace on several of his trips to the store.  “His commitment to selling this popcorn for his Boy Scout troop will lead him to better things in life once he begins his career and starts a family,” Mazur said as he made his way to the table where he asked Grayson to explain what he was selling.  After hearing him clearly articulate about each item, including his own sales pitches like: “And this can with the Bills logo can be used for so many things after you finish the Kettle Korn,” Mazur purchased several items and left a $100 bill on the table.

“Sir, you forgot this,” Grayson yelled as Mazur was climbing into his truck.  “That’s a tip for you.”

When asked what he was going to do with the tip, Grayson thought for a minute before responding: “I will either donate it to a veterans group we help, or I will give it to our scout troop.”

Grayson sells popcorn items to Gina Pellitieri of Grand Island

Gina Pellitieri of the Island was rushing out of Ace Hardware with her 4-year-old son, Nico, when she heard Grayson’s pitch. “He is so persuasive,” she said with a laugh. “He got us to purchase the biggest can and three different flavors of popcorn.  I am impressed with this young man.”

Caitlyn Clingersmith of Grand Island, whose son was also a Boy Scout, said: “He’s quite the entrepreneur who has a lot going on in his head.” 

“Keep it going and continue to work to achieve your goals,” she told him. 

“Thank you for that advice,” was Grayson’s response.

His goal after graduating from Grand Island High School is to attend college for engineering because he enjoys building which is apparent by the many things he builds with his LEGO sets, according to his dad.

Business and Entrepreneurism would have to rank a close second especially after beginning his Healthy Eats business this year.   Let him explain how it all began:

“In January I was picking out seeds of unique pumpkins, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, and gourds. They were planted and grew throughout winter. In late April, I placed some of the plants outside so they could grow stronger stems and get used to the rays of the sun. Then my dad picked out the plants that would go into the garden. There were 13 tomato plants left and I did not want to let them go to waste so I nurtured and grew them to a monstrous size.  Then I sold them in my cart and was thinking about how many fruits went to waste from not eating them in time last year. 

Grayson enjoys school, blueberry pie, and he is a big Buffalo Bills, Bisons, Bandits and Sabres fan.

“So, I waited two weeks until I had enough veggies to sell and because everybody loves veggies. I sold out fast,” he explained.  “I also wanted to be more prepared the next time I had veggies to sell so I used the money I earned and purchased items to improve my cart.

“It was no longer a cart.  It had now become my mobile store. The base of my cart is forest green with yellow lettering. My shelving is wood containers in the middle and black welded wire baskets on the outside. There are three stories of shelving.  My veggies don’t get dinged and damaged because of the cloth protecting them and give my customers my cell number and ask them to text message me their order.”

Grayson studies his chess board during a recent high school tournament in Lackawanna

Grayson also enjoys school, blueberry pie, and he is a big Buffalo Bills, Bisons, Bandits and Sabres fan who has not attended any games since the pandemic began.  For the past six years, he and his father have been playing chess at home and Grayson has joined the Grand Island Chess club, which is a member of the Western New York Scholastic Chess Assn.

The Grand Island club is open to middle and high school students and meets each Tuesday from September through June with monthly tournaments.  Grand Island will host a tournament October 30 in the high school cafeteria.  During a September tournament in Lackawanna, Grayson won two matches and lost three in his initial tournament.

“The goal I set for students starting out is to win just one game at a tournament and he has already won two,” said Grand Island Chess club coach Sue Szczublewski.  “He is moving in the right direction but he must protect his Queen more.”

Grayson enjoys it because the competition is giving him more strategies in playing the game.  “The problem of just playing my father is I only play against one strategy.  Now I am learning much more.  It’s hard, but I like it when it’s more of a challenge.”

Back at Ace selling his popcorn, Mia Villani was asked if she has a cabinet full of popcorn at home.  “Of course,” she says with a smile.  “Who can say no to Grayson?”

As for me, I certainly was going to support him with a purchase but I had no cash so I told him I would catch him the next time.  “I accept credits cards,” he said, looking directly at me with total confidence he was going to close this deal.  “I have the Cube I use with my cell phone to accept all credit cards.”

After receiving approval for my transaction, he handed me my items and said, “You are going to enjoy those cashews.  I have had several people return to purchase more of them.”

The ultimate salesman who learned from a great mentor—his dad.

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