Written by Jessica Graybill
Unity Shoppe provides an extremely important service to Santa Barbara, and it’s one of the town’s unintentionally best kept secrets. Despite being a (nearly) lifelong Santa Barbara resident, it is only because of Italian Pottery Outlet’s recent partnership with the organization that I have learned so much – many locals probably hear the name and think of the The Gift Shoppe that operates on State Street, but it is so, so much more.
I had the immense pleasure recently of touring Unity Shoppe’s Central Distribution Facility, located at 1401 Chapala Street in Santa Barbara. Executive Director Tom Reed was kind enough to give me a one-on-one tour, and though I went with the intention of taking notes, by the end of our hour together I realized I had been so absorbed with his words and pleasant energy that I really didn’t even think about note-taking.
From the outside of the unassuming building, you would never believe what’s inside. Walking into the facility feels warm and inviting, with friendly staff and volunteers buzzing about. I was delighted to see the greeting area decorated like a courtyard, complete with a decorative fountain in the center and hand-painted murals on the walls featuring scenes of Chumash lore. Beyond that, through arched doorways resembling the stone masonry commonly seen throughout our town, there are fully-stocked shelves full of pantry staples – canned goods, peanut butter, cereal, beans, rice – and a beautiful display of fresh produce reminiscent of a farmer’s market with wooden bins piled high with fruit and vegetables. There are refrigerators full of meat, milk, eggs, and pre-made meals. Shoppers exit through a checkout counter where their items are tallied just like at the grocery store, but no payment is exchanged – all of this is provided free to the clientele. This makes for a “normal” shopping experience as far as the children are concerned, who are unaware that mom is not paying.
Clients are referred by over 300 local service agencies and programs; this is where the “Unity” part of the name comes from, as they are a united front for the community. The largest number of referrals comes from local schools, followed by non-profit agencies, community counseling and resource centers, senior programs, and medical facilities. Each client is qualified and documented to avoid duplication of services, and I was surprised to learn that a large percentage (17%) of clients were referred from agencies north of us in Lompoc, Santa Maria and the surrounding areas – shockingly, there is not another non-profit that functions in the same way, not only here in California but in the entire nation. Unity Shoppe is the only philanthropic organization of its kind in the United States, though Montecito part-time resident celebrities (part-time residents, full-time celebrities) Brad Paisley and Kimberly Williams-Paisley are working on opening The Store in Nashville, TN, which is inspired by the Unity Shoppe model.
In addition to free grocery support, Unity Shoppe provides a number of other important services to struggling families and vulnerable individuals. They offer long-term emergency disaster recovery services to those who’ve lost their homes to natural disasters. Their Job Smart program provides resume assistance, interview skill coaching, job clothing and training to 600 clients annually, helping low-income employment seekers put their best foot forward when meeting with potential employers. Nearly 1800 youth donate community service hours annually through Unity Shoppe’s Work, Learn & Earn programs, which teach essential job skills to high school students, 25% of can then get better jobs to get through college or may not be able to pursue higher education. Their “Back to School” program provides clothing and school supplies that are purchased new at close-out prices to 8,000 children annually throughout Santa Barbara county.
The Free Grocery Store also works in conjunction with Sansum’s Diabetes Research Institute to prescribe farm-fresh food (donated by local farms) to low-income individuals with type 2 diabetes. Their Senior Resource Center, co-located at 1209 State Street along with the Gift Shoppe, provides clothing, personal products, stationary and yarn to 3,300 seniors and 300 disabled citizens annually. Senior volunteers work with staff and children at Unity, making incredibly impressive wooden toys and knitting beautiful handmade clothing and baby blankets for Santa’s Toy Shoppe. Of course this area is the most whimsical part of the building, with a giant chair, a playhouse and floor-to-ceiling toys for kids of all ages. During the holidays, the fully stocked shelves of toys are rapidly depleted, but generous donations to this incredible non-profit help to bridge the gap.
At the heart of the Unity Shoppe mission is encouragement of self-sufficiency, and independence of individuals and their families. By providing education and basic necessities to families, children, seniors, and people with disabilities through periodic times of crisis, these vulnerable citizens are empowered, which prevents the escalation to greater social and economic problems like homelessness and welfare dependency. Limited incomes are supplemented with much-needed food, furniture, and basic necessities like school supplies and clothing, and all of this is provided in a dignified manner without regard to political affiliation, religion, or ethnic identity. Children receive the benefit of seeing their parents (as opposed to charitable strangers) provide for their families – maintaining the dignity and respect of the parents as caregivers, and fostering tighter family bonds. And perhaps most importantly, clients are provided the gift of choice when shopping for their necessities, rather than being given a prescribed set of donated items that may go to waste because they do not suit their personal needs.
This year Unity Shoppe will celebrate 101 years of public service. Started in 1917 by Dr. Pearl Chase (1888-1979), a civic advocate who was instrumental throughout her adult life in Santa Barbara’s historic preservation, architecture, and general well-being, Dr. Chase saw the plight of struggling single women raising their children alone while their husbands were at war and the many seniors living alone without the benefit of family members to help them. She began to coordinate volunteers to help these vulnerable Santa Barbara citizens specifically through the month of December. Then known as the “Council of Christmas Cheer”, she and her volunteers would collect food, clothing, and used toys so families could shop for their own specific needs and mothers could provide gifts to their children during difficult times. Volunteers kept the organization operational for 69 years with no paid help and no official funding – an incredible feat – but in 1986 the organization struggled to collect enough toys to help the 4,000 referred children throughout the holidays. Fortunately Barbara Tellefson, Director of Operations, ran into local celebrity Kenny Loggins in a parking lot and – knowing that he was the national spokesman for the Toys for Tots program – she jumped at the chance to invite him to help their cause. He agreed, becoming a volunteer advisor and helping to guide Unity into a future they never dreamed possible. His celebrity boosted their strength, and along with local news station KEYT3 and the Smith family, they hosted their first annual holiday telethon in 1987 which helps raise the funding necessary to support Unity’s mission, which became a year-round operation in 1988. Today, nearly 20,000 unduplicated people are referred by 300 non-profits, churches, schools and hospitals so more people can be helped with better and more consistent support services. We at Italian Pottery Outlet are so proud of the work they do for our community, we’ve partnered with them and now donate 5% of our total website sales to them each month (since February 2018) – so when you shop with us, you’re not only supporting a family-owned business and the independent Italian artists who make our business possible, you’re also supporting Unity Shoppe in their mission to empower our struggling neighbors.
If you would like to donate to Unity Shoppe directly, click here to do so through their website.