Barbara Tellefson: 1936-2020

Credit: Courtesy

In the days after Barbara Tellefson died, scores of well-wishers described her as “Saint Barbara,” an “unstoppable force for good,” “a walking heart of gold,” a woman who “inspired others to join her in moving mountains.” She was the founder and matriarch of the Unity Shoppe, which formed in 1987 thanks in part to Kenny Loggins. In true Barbara Tellefson fashion, she convinced him to help her get KEYT-TV to be a partner in what has become an annual Unity Shoppe Telethon fundraiser in support of low-income residents.

In the last half century of her 84 years of life, Barbara was proudly a human rights champion with a strong work ethic. She attributed her pragmatism and defense of basic human rights to fundamental values instilled by her family.

In the small Southern town of Dinwiddie, Virginia, Barbara absorbed important life lessons as she worked alongside her parents as they learned the language and reinvented themselves in a new world with few resources. Emigres from Germany who managed to escape before the full onset of World War II and the atrocities of the Holocaust that would ensue, her family arrived in the United States penniless. They eventually cobbled together enough money to buy a simple side-of-the-highway motel with adjoining dinette and gas station. Throughout her life, Barbara referred to those years in Dinwiddie as the place she developed a profound appreciation for “people of all kinds passing through on their lives’ journeys.”

Barbara’s father died in 1958, and her stepmother followed a few years later. With both parents gone, Barbara was left to take care of her much younger brother, Stephen, a little boy at the time. After several years of low-paying jobs throughout the country in order to find a way to make ends meet and survive as a “single mother,” Barbara arrived in Santa Barbara in the mid-1960s — penniless and alone. She secured work as a travel agent and soon after met and married Clair Tellefson, an engineer, in 1969. It was then that Barbara vowed never to forget her roots or life’s rough patches. She began to actively focus on volunteer work to help struggling single mothers raise their children, much as she had.

By 1973, Barbara began volunteering with Pearl Chase and her charity, the Council of Christmas Cheer, which was founded in 1917. Barbara served under Chase’s leadership for more than 20 years. When asked about those early years, Barbara explained: “I was immediately struck by how the council welcomed and aided all Santa Barbarans — the young, old, rich, and poor; people from all races, creeds, and colors.” As Pearl Chase was getting ready to retire, Barbara promised that she would “re-commit her life and resources” to helping the most vulnerable in the community as best as she could for as long as she could — and the Unity Shoppe sprang from that vow.

Credit: Courtesy

After several years of ups and downs, Barbara was ultimately able to achieve the kind of organizational stability and breadth of programming she felt were essential to keeping Unity Shoppe open year-round and relevant. In one of her last interviews, she said, “All I’ve ever wanted was to find a way to build a ‘sustainable community of support’ so that Unity Shoppe could be ‘just the right place’ local residents facing an unforeseen crisis could go to avoid welfare dependence or even homelessness — and, most of all, keep their families intact.”

But Barbara took it a step further, insisting that people in need should never be made to feel they had to turn over their dignity, autonomy, or independent decision-making in order to receive something in return. “When we strive to improve the economic situation or sense of hopelessness experienced by our neighbors, we mustn’t ever forget to show them respect and elevate their dignity at every turn,” she said in 2020. Thanks to Barbara, this sentiment has remained imbued in Unity Shoppe’s work core purpose to this day.

Barbara realized early on that temporary crises are inevitable and could occur at any time. Whether during the 2017-2018 Thomas Fire and 1/9 Debris Flow, or today with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Unity Shoppe, under Barbara’s deft leadership, was able to undertake massive but focused programmatic overhauls to meet the specific needs of the community’s residents as they arose from each crisis.

And her vision survives her passing not only in Santa Barbara, where Unity Shoppe continues onward under new and similarly dedicated leadership, but also in cities such as Nashville, Tennessee, and Blacksburg, Virginia.

In 2012, country singer Brad Paisley and his family volunteered at Unity Shoppe while visiting Santa Barbara. They were so taken by how the mission was executed, they committed the next few years to replicating the model in their hometown of Nashville, calling it The Store and launching it two years later. In 2019, an alumni couple of Virginia Tech University put up the seed money to open The Market, after learning that many students attending their alma mater were struggling with food insecurity. Hema and Mehul Sanghani said their desire to create The Market was inspired in large part by the mission and tactics employed at Unity Shoppe under Barbara’s direction.

Barbara’s work and vision were recognized time and again: She received letters of appreciation from Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton; she was named Woman of the Year by the Santa Barbara Foundation and the California Legislature; she was given Distinguished Service Awards by the Anti-Defamation League, the University of Notre Dame, and the California State PTA. Her last award was perhaps the most fitting — in September 2020, the Santa Barbara Chapter of the United Nations Association selected Barbara to receive the UN Award for “Advancing Human Rights and Dignity.”

Credit: Courtesy

In 2015, Barbara had begun penning her life story but, unfortunately, was unable to complete the work before the onset of an aggressive illness and her untimely passing. Above all else, Barbara dedicated herself to the people she helped; to her mother, father, brother, and husband, whom she loved deeply; and to the staff of Unity Shoppe, whom she cherished and considered family.

Barbara is survived by her niece Anita Graf Valoy of New York and nephew Oren Tokatly (nephew) of Israel, and also the many she adopted into her heart and life: daughter-in-law Bernadette Tellefson, grandson Tellef Tellefson, great-grandson Lennon Tellefon; and her Unity Shoppe family: Sammy Cook, Fernando Cuevas, Tricia Edwards, Donna Egeberg, Gerardo Figueroa, Vanessa Gonzales, Jan Hawkins, Patricia Hitchcock, David Holden, Lila Leon, Gloria Meldonian, Jeanette Moran, Christina Rodriguez, Beto Rodriguez, Vincent Romero, Consuelo Sierra, Jose Sierra, Karina Vera, and especially Elvira Avina, loyal to Barbara and Unity Shoppe for more than 29 years and whom Barbara considered a daughter.

Condolence donations honoring the enormity of Barbara’s legacy can be made to the Barbara E. Tellefson Building and Programs Fund at


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