Barbara Tellefson

By Montecito Journal   |   February 4, 2021

1936-2020 Immigrant daughter from humble beginnings internalized her family’s “Lessons to Live By” and became a community hero by dedicating her life to serving people in crisis

Unity Shoppe lost our matriarch and founder, Barbara Tellefson, after a brief bout with an aggressive illness. She was 84. Barbara’s singular focus and half-century of devotion to our Santa Barbara County community was in a league of its own, and in the days since her passing, this was confirmed by the scores of well-wishers describing 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.” Kenny Loggins, a loyal friend and supporter of Barbara and Unity Shoppe for the past 35 years, said he would be “forever changed by experiencing this woman’s incredible grit and determination to find the means to help over one million people in Santa Barbara during her lifetime.”

Barbara Tellefson prided herself on being a human rights champion with a strong work ethic, attributing both her pragmatism and stance in defense of basic human rights to the fundamental values instilled in her eight decades earlier 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, but 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” on her own, Barbara arrived in Santa Barbara in the mid-1960s – penniless and alone. She secured work as a travel agent in town and soon after met and married local engineer, Clair Tellefson, in 1969. It was then that Barbara vowed never to forget her roots or life’s rough patches and actively focus on volunteer work to help struggling single mothers raise their children, much like she had. 

By 1973, Barbara began volunteering with Dr. Pearl Chase and the charity Dr. Chase founded in 1917 called the Council of Christmas Cheer where she served under Dr. Chase’s leadership for more than 20 years. When asked about those early years with the Council and why she remained for so long, 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 Dr. 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.

In 1983, Barbara was able to secure the Council’s first building to avoid the incredible hardship of repeated moves from rental spaces without notices at the whim of area landlords. By 1987, the Council was renamed Unity Shoppe thanks in part to the support of entertainer Kenny Loggins, whom she convinced to help her get local television station KEYT-TV as a partner in the production of a Unity Shoppe Telethon fundraiser in support of Santa Barbara’s low-income residents. 

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 the nonprofit she founded 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. 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 Debris Flow, or with the impact of this latest 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 like Nashville, Tennessee and Blacksburg, Virginia. In 2012, country singer Brad Paisley and his family volunteered at Unity Shoppe while visiting Santa Barbara and 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 was named Santa Barbara Woman of the Year, Soroptimist Woman of Distinction, California State Legislature Woman of the Year, and Santa Barbara Business and Professional Woman of the Year. She has been given Distinguished Service Awards by Anti-Defamation League, West Coast Seniors, the University of Notre Dame, and The California State PTA. The Points of Light Foundation in Washington, D.C. honored the Unity Shoppe with the President’s “Points of Light Award.” Barbara has been listed as an Honored Professional in the Nationwide Register of “Who’s Who” in Executives and Businesses. Barbara was also honored in Houston, Texas as one of 100 women nationwide for raising her voice to make a difference in her community and received letters of appreciation from Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton, Governor Pete Wilson, and Senator Gary Hart. In 2019, she was nominated for the Santa Barbara Community Hero Award by the Rotary International Peace Conference, and her last award was perhaps the most fitting. in September, 2020 the United Nations Association, Santa Barbara Chapter, selected Barbara to receive the UN Award for “Advancing Human Rights and Dignity.”

In 2015, Barbara had begun penning her life story but, unfortunately, was unable to complete the work before the onset of her illness and 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 preceded in death by Clair Tellefson who passed in 1994 (the two had no children of their own), Annelise Hohestein (birth mother), Hans Simmons (née Hans Simon, birth father), Angelica Simmons (sister), Jimmy Simmons (brother), Eva “Chava” Simon (sister), Sofie Menzel (second mother), and her loyal, four-legged companion of many years, Kobi. She is survived by her birth family: Anita Graf Valoy of New York (niece) and Oren Tokatly (nephew) of Israel.

Barbara created an unconventional family too, adopting many into her heart and life, including Bernadette Tellefson (daughter-in-law), Tellef Tellefson (grandson), Lennon Tellefson (great-grandson), as well as her Unity Shoppe family which includes Elvira Avina, loyal to Barbara and Unity for over 29 years and whom Barbara considered a daughter, as well as 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, and Karina Vera. 

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


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