In Memoriam

Apr 16, 2021

Barbara Varenhorst

Barbara Varenhorst, a longtime member of the American Counseling Association and an important contributor to the field of school counseling, passed away in February.

Varenhorst worked for many years as a high school psychologist in Palo Alto, California and established a peer counseling program for the district in the 1970s. Her program – one of the first of its kind in the country – equipped students with tools to support their peers’ metal health through trainings on listening and communication skills, how and when to refer a peer to a school counselor and other issues. The program proved to be a robust, student-involved way to address issues such as bullying and suicide risk.

“I had so much respect for what Barbara did in the peer counselor/peer helper movement that it was always difficult for me to call her anything but Dr. Varenhorst. She was a wonderful person who first introduced me to the importance of counseling when I was, get this, a seventh grader!” says Richard Yep, CEO of the American Counseling Association and a California native. “Dr. Varenhorst’s work in the area of peer counseling impacted tens of thousands of adolescents and young adults. She treated all of us who knew her and participated in her programs with respect, understanding, and compassion. I know that my love for the counseling profession was due in large part to what she shared with me.”


Read more about Varenhorst’s life and legacy in her obituary, reprinted with permission from her family:


Dr. Barbara B. (Ebright) Varenhorst, Ph.D.

June 4, 1928 - February 23, 2021

With loving family by her side, Dr. Barbara B. (Ebright) Varenhorst, Ph.D. of Portola Valley, slipped peacefully into the arms of her Lord on Tuesday evening, February 23. Barbara was born in Omaha, Nebraska on June 4, 1928 to Oak Wood and Mary Louise (Davidson) Ebright.

As the daughter of a Lutheran minister, Barbara grew up in a strong Christian family, shaping her purpose in life and desire to help others. She attended schools in Kansas and Nebraska, graduating from Lincoln High School in 1946. She conducted her undergraduate work at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, graduating in 1950. A fellowship at Syracuse University allowed her to continue her education, and ultimately earn her master’s degree in 1952. Required to read extensively about youth counseling and guidance, Barbara attributed the clear vision that she would later develop about peer counseling to her time at Syracuse University. While at Syracuse she would also meet her future husband, Vernon D. Varenhorst.

Barbara and Vern were married in 1953 in Pasadena. They moved to the Palo Alto area, where she began teaching and counseling in the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD). In 1964, she earned her Ph.D. from Stanford University in counseling psychology and returned to PAUSD as a counseling psychologist for two high schools. While there during the early 1970s, Dr. Varenhorst began to recognize that students were looking to their friends and peers, rather than the adults in their lives, when they needed help in decision making or problem solving. This was her inspiration for developing her peer counseling curriculum, to train and collaborate with young people to be more effective in helping their peers.

Dr. Varenhorst always felt that the most important aspect of her career was developing the Palo Alto Peer Counseling Program. In the years since, thousands of young people across the country have been trained in communication skills, human dynamics, and when to seek assistance from caring adults through Peer Helping programs, Peer Ministry, and other programs that came from this original work.

Dr. Varenhorst has been acknowledged as the “mother” of the peer helper movement and a founding member of the National Peer Helpers Association. Her impact has been far reaching and will continue to touch others for years to come.

In addition to her work in the Palo Alto Unified School District, Dr. Varenhorst was a visiting instructor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Stanford University, California Polytechnic State University, San Francisco State University, University of Victoria and Johns Hopkins University. Her publications were extensive and well-regarded, including the book Real Friends: Becoming the Friend You’d Like to Have (1983).

She was especially proud of her roles as co-founder and past president of the National Peer Helpers Association, and her affiliations with the California Association of Peer Programs, the Board of Regents at St. Olaf College, Search Institute, and the College Board. Dr. Varenhorst was also elected to the Vesper Society Board of Directors in 1977. She served there in many leadership positions, including interim president from 1996-1999. Barbara and Vern joined Valley Presbyterian Church in the mid 1990s where Barbara served as an elder, founded and nurtured an adult education program and made many strong friendships.

Barbara will be remembered not only for the impact she had on countless youth, but also as a mentor and friend. She was known for her kindness and generosity, and her beautiful, bright smile. Even after a stroke four years ago caused her to transition away from independent living, her compassion, curiosity, and kindness towards others continued unabated. Her warm smile always remained the same.

Barbara is survived by many longtime friends, who were like family, as well as her sister-in-law, Virginia Barrows, and several nieces, nephews, great-nieces, and great-nephews, all who loved their Aunt Barb dearly. She was preceded in death by her parents, her husband Vern, brothers John C. Ebright and William D. Ebright, sister Dorothy Meyer, nephews David Oak Ebright, Donald Barrows, and Larry Barrows, and brother-in-law Ernest Barrows.

Our family would like to express our sincere thanks to the nurses, doctors and caregivers at the Healthcare Center at The Forum for the loving care they gave Barbara these last four years. We’d also like to thank her many kind friends, who visited her regularly and sent her cards and letters with warm, caring thoughts.

Because of the pandemic restrictions in place, a Celebration of Life will be planned for a later date when friends and family are able to safely travel and gather together. Skylawn is in charge of her arrangements. Memories of Barbara may be shared at their website,

In lieu of flowers, memorial gifts may be made to The Barbara and Vernon Varenhorst Fund at the Search Institute, 3001 Broadway Street NE, Suite 310, Minneapolis MN 55413 or at; The Vernon and Barbara Varenhorst Endowed Scholarship at St. Olaf College, either by check to St. Olaf College, 1520 St. Olaf Avenue, Northfield, MN 55057 or at; or a charity of choice.

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