Unity Shoppe founder Barbara Tellefson leaves behind a legacy of helping families
Barbara Tellefson refused to take “no” for an answer.
Known for her tenacity and energy, the Santa Barbara County hero reached for seemingly impossible goals.
And she succeeded.
Her efforts over the years meant everything to everyone from low-income families to those affected by disasters such as the Montecito debris flow and Thomas Fire.
Her determination led her to found Unity Shoppe, a nonprofit that has helped struggling families to put food on their table and clothes on their back. Her vision led to a nonprofit known for treating people with dignity and allowing them to choose what they needed.
Ms. Tellefson died Sunday from a terminal illness. The Santa Barbara resident, who was the Unity Shoppe founder, president and director of operations, was 84.
And it’s safe to say there was no one like her.
“There will never be another Barbara Tellefson in our town,” said Jelinda Devorzon, the 2019 Santa Barbara Woman of the Year and an advocate for Unity Shoppe, in a statement Tuesday. “She was a force of nature, but not one that ever sought the spotlight.
“Instead she poured all of her energies into working behind the scenes, enabling Unity Shoppe to grow and develop a physical footprint where our community’s low-income families, seniors, the disabled and disaster victims could receive a broad range of services when experiencing a crisis event,” Ms. Devorzon said.
Tom Reed, the Unity Shoppe executive director, praised Ms. Tellefson for her great legacy in a statement Tuesday. “Unity Shoppe’s Board of Directors, management team and staff intend to keep the doors of Unity Shoppe wide open and its services free of charge to Santa Barbara residents in need for years to come, which was her final wish.”
Ms. Tellefson impressed many people in the community including News-Press Co-Publishers Wendy McCaw and Arthur von Wiesenberger. “The memory of Barbara and her love for the community is something we will always treasure,” they said Tuesday.
Montecito singer Kenny Loggins worked with Ms. Tellefson in starting and promoting the longtime nonprofit.
“I knew her for 37 years,” Mr. Loggins told the News-Press Tuesday. “Without her, there wouldn’t have been a Unity Shoppe. It was really her vision.”
Mr. Loggins said he helped Ms. Tellefson to raise Unity Shoppe’s profile and gave her computers in the beginning to help her keep track of the people she was serving.
But the singer stressed that Unity Shoppe was Ms. Tellefson’s vision.
“It was really Barbara all the way,” Mr. Loggins said. “We had a board of directors for a period of time, and there were things that they considered to be impossible. But because of her vision and her tenacity, she just kept going, and she made things happen including buying the buildings that housed Unity.
“She was just an incredibly generous, loving person,” he said. “That’s the Barbara I knew.”
Mr. Loggins said Ms. Tellefson was determined to reach her goals. “She didn’t want people to tell her ‘no.’ I think that’s the nature of people in her position who make things happen, especially in that kind of area where things that have been done before seem impossible to those without that vision.”
Mr. Loggins praised Ms. Tellefson for her vision of arranging Unity Shoppe as a store where people pick up, at no cost to them, what they feel they need — as opposed to others making those decisions for them. He said that vision was more efficient and more respectful of people’s dignity.
Ms. Tellefson elaborated on Unity Shoppe’s philosophy in a 2018 News-Press interview after the tragic Montecito debris flow.
People affected by disasters need time to figure out what they need, and that’s where Unity Shoppe comes in, Ms. Tellefson said. “Most people are not going to ask for very much until they process everything.”
In a 2019 News-Press interview, Ms. Tellefson explained how her empathy for others came from personal experience. She said that as a single mother, she received services from various groups but didn’t feel fully independent or understood.
She said she wanted to give people a voice so they could take care of their own families.
“I wanted them to be the heroes, not us,” Ms. Tellefson said.
“Giving is very complicated,” she explained. “Giving is not about making you feel good. It’s about making the person you want to help feel good. We need to do what’s best for the whole.”
Ms. Tellefson understood that there would always be people affected by temporary crises and in need of help, said Pat Hitchcock, director of donor relations at Unity Shoppe. “Particularly in the last year, she was intent on making sure Unity Shoppe would be able to sustain its current and future operation of critical programs in a stable and debt-free manner.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Ms. Tellefeson worked to help residents, especially after 25,000 hourly wage residents lost their jobs and were desperate for groceries to survive. She found a way to manage the need for free, nutritious groceries in a safe manner, and Unity Shoppe on Tuesday reported it was prepared to safely feed thousands of more residents throughout 2021.
Each year, Unity Shoppe serves around 20,000 people who are referred by more than 300 nonprofits.
It operates its grocery and clothing distribution center at 1401 Chapala St., helping people to make ends meet and avoid homelessness and welfare dependence. The center also has seasonal shops and a “Work, Learn & Earn” volunteer training program for young adults and the disabled.
At 1207-09 State St., Unity operates programs such as Job Smart for adults in need of interview clothes and employment support.
Unity Shoppe is currently in need of $5.5 million to complete the establishment of its physical imprint. Before her passing, Ms. Tellefson made a final pledge of the first $500,000 toward the goal.
Mr. Loggins said the goal is to pay Unity Shoppe’s mortgage and secure its future.
Residents who would like to honor Ms. Tellefson’s pledge can make donations at www.unityshoppe.org or by calling Ms. Hitchcock at 805-979-9511.
News-Press Associate Editor Mitchell White contributed to this story.