Before retiring, Executive Director Tom Reed talks to the News-Press about his tenure with the unique Santa Barbara nonprofit
It all started with an introduction to Barbara Tellefson.
When Tom Reed met the enthusiastic woman, he knew he wanted to join her effort to help people in need.
And that was the start of Mr. Reed’s association with Unity Shoppe, a unique Santa Barbara nonprofit that has inspired similar efforts elsewhere in the nation.
Today, 20 years later, Mr. Reed is preparing to hand his baton to a new leader. At the end of the year, he’s retiring as the Unity Shoppe executive director.
Angela Miller-Bevan will be assuming the position as executive director and has been training on site for her new position since July.
Mr. Reed talked to the News-Press about his long career with a nonprofit that has helped many residents.
“I was introduced to Barabara Tellefson by my now wife Marcia, and Steve Cushman, executive director of Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce. Marcia and Steve had their fingers on the pulse of the city,” Mr. Reed told the News-Press.
“Ms. Tellefson was looking for help, and the board was looking for a new building and depth of leadership. I vibrated with Ms. Tellefson’s vision of what she wanted to do,” Mr. Reed said.
The News-Press asked Mr. Reed what he has accomplished that he is most proud of.
“I had lost two houses as a result of major natural disasters and had a spiritual awakening doing music and men’s conferences for 15 years as part of a spiritual search. Finding Unity Shoppe was a completion of that spiritual journey,” he said. “Helping and serving others is the fulfillment and meaning of life, and that is what I saw in Barbara’s vision.
“The board had put a deposit on a new building at 1219 State St., which was on the market for $2.1 million. It was the perfect location, sharing a parking lot with a church that Barbara had purchased in the ’80s,” Mr. Reed recalled.
But there was a deadline.
“We had 30 days to raise the funds,” Mr. Reed said. “Pierre Claeyssens, who was 92 at the time, offered to match whatever money we raised up to a million dollars. His wife volunteered at the Unity Shoppe and saw how clients were served with choice.”
Mr. Claeyssens was a veteran who inspired the Santa Barbara-based Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Foundation.
“Mr. Claeyssen was a child in Belgium during World War I and saw how families were given things that they didn’t want or need,” Mr. Reed recalled. “He liked how Unity Shoppe offered choice. We were able to raise $1 million, and he matched us, which allowed us to purchase the building.”
“At the time Unity Shoppe was greatly appreciated by those ‘in the know’ foundations,” Mr. Reed said. “I brought community awareness to the table. We acquired the building and remodeled it into the cutest nonprofit I have ever seen. It was a wonderful start for me. It opened in late 2004, and had a remarkable run for over 10 years.”
The building included the Victoria Theatre, which served as the site for Unity Shoppe telethons.
“Then there was a struggle with Victoria Theatre due to a disagreement between church owners,” Mr. Reed said. “When the theater was sold, we lost our interest when the building was sold, which forced us to relocate.
“We currently own three locations — the main Unity Shoppe (1401 Chapala St.) and the gift shop (1209 State St,), with the senior center in the back, which takes care of over 3,000 seniors each year,” Mr. Reed said. “The third location is the furniture store (1207 State St.), where the money generated from sales at the furniture store goes toward purchasing food for Unity Shoppe.
“Barbara and I were able to buy five buildings, and we still own three,” Mr. Reed said. “Owning space and being in control of destiny is vitally important. Most nonprofits lease, but it costs us a lot less to own, about 70 cents a square foot on a monthly basis.
“We are assured of providing services for the next hundred years. I’m very proud that we have acquired the operational footprint of adequate operation space. The furniture store is paid off, and the other two are on mortgages,” said Mr. Reed.
The retiring executive director talked about what he has learned in the last 20 years.
“What I have learned is the value of the nonprofit sector. The nonprofit sector does the best work in support of communities. We have realized the uniqueness of Barbara’s vision for Unity Shoppe.”
Mr. Reed said many celebrities such as local singers Kenny Loggins and Brad Paisley have become involved with Unity Shoppe because of its uniqueness and accomplishments.
“It’s actually astounding,” Mr. Reed said. “People from all over the country visit Sanata Barbara and Unity Shoppe and ask why they don’t have one where they are from.”
The News-Press asked Mr. Reed what Unity Shoppe has meant to him,
“It’s the way we take care of our own,” he said. “These aren’t statistics. These are families, seniors and physically and mentally challenged people. Unity Shoppe serves as a safety net; it’s so expensive to live in Santa Barbara.
“These are real people in our community. The way Unity Shoppe takes care of those struggling people is a total gift. This is something I have grown to understand and value over the years,” Mr. Reed said.
“We have over 1,700 volunteers each year which we train, allowing us to operate with a minimum staff of 20-24 employees. Whereas, ideally this operation needs 50-100 employees,” Mr. Reed said.
“As I look back on 20 years, the community awareness component of Unity Shoppe has become more of a household name. It is better known and is now replicating itself in other locations. That is what I feel very good about,” he said.
“People will comment to me about how they have learned about Unity Shoppe. It’s not all me but what I have been able to do by being the public face,” Mr. Reed said. “I feel very good about how well known Unity Shoppe is in Santa Barbara. I’m departing with Unity Shoppe having grown from a few programs to about seven important programs.
“It has matured in response to known needs, by providing dignity and restoring self-esteem and reinforcing the family unit, rather than making them feel like second-class citizens,” said Mr. Reed.
The News-Press asked Mr. Reed what he sees for the future of Unity Shoppe.
“When we started delivering groceries, it was during the pandemic, and it has turned out to be a necessary expansion of food distribution,” Mr. Reed said. “We have decided to make that permanent and we need another refrigerated van and more administrative staff. This program is partially sponsored by the Paul and Patricia Bragg Foundation. We will expand the program, and all programs will be expanded into north Santa Barbara county.
“We have about 400 referring agencies that send clients to us. Our location is in South County, so we will expand by collaborating with nonprofits in North County including the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County,” Mr. Reed said.
“It’s been a very fulfilling and gratifying career at Unity Shoppe,” Mr. Reed said. “It’s a little bittersweet to leave with exciting things happening. It is in a very stable position financially. I have every confidence that Unity Shoppe will continue to grow and be a premier nonprofit in Santa Barbara County.”