Barbara Varenhorst, PhD

Barbara B. Varenhorst, PhD

Note: The following profile was written after reviewing Dr. Varenhorst’s vita, conducting a literature review of her work and having the distinct honor of an interview with Dr. Varenhorst about her work and ideas regarding peer helping. Dr. Barbara Varenhorst currently lives in Portola Valley, California, and works as a Counseling Psychologist and Private Counselor/Consultant.

Barbara B. Varenhorst, PhD has been acknowledged as the “mother” of the peer helper movement and a founding member of the National Peer Helpers Association. More importantly, Barbara should be recognized for advancing the important role that our adolescents and youth play in our society and for comprehending the importance of their social interactions. Her open-minded view and belief in the strengths of youth instruction paved the way for the development of many significant programs pertaining to youth development in schools and ministries. Dr. Varenhorst has opened her mind and her heart to enriching the lives of numerous youth and in turn their families and communities.

Dr. Varenhorst believes that her experiences as a young woman working with her father, Oak Ebright, a Lutheran minister at a facility for the homeless, helped to humble her to the needs of others. She realized then that giving of oneself was what is really important in life. She also fondly remembers her brother, William “Bill” Ebright, six years her elder, who encouraged her to try out for the Pep Club in high school. Barbara, who did not consider herself as the cheerleading type, made the club. It was her brother’s confidence in her ability that challenged Barbara to try out even when she perceived a negative outcome. Dr. Varenhorst believes that this experience helped shape her views of meeting new challenges. Perhaps this is where she first experienced the need to address the problems of adolescents and their decision-making processes. It is evident in her own life that communication with peers promotes positive results. These beliefs, or themes, can be seen throughout her work in developing curricula for peer helping programs and enhancing among youth trust, encouragement, and academic achievement.

Dr. Varenhorst conducted her undergraduate work at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, where she majored in English and History, with a minor in Philosophy. She followed this with correspondence courses in the summer that allowed her to teach as an intern. Soon after, Barbara returned to St. Olaf College and inquired into options besides teaching. Barbara applied, at the recommendation of a head resident at St. Olaf College, for a fellowship at Syracuse University in the Student Personnel Program. This opportunity allowed her to travel East while continuing her education. During her fellowship, Dr. Varenhorst was required to do extensive reading in counseling and guidance. She attributes the clear vision about peer counseling she would eventually develop to the work of Gilbert Wrenn, a contemporary psychologist prevalent in student affairs development. Barbara states that the only articles that made any sense to her were those written by Wrenn, “I began to get a sense of what counseling and guidance should really be about by reading Gilbert’s stuff.”

Dr. Varenhorst earned her Masters Degree at Syracuse University in 1952 and became Assistant to the Dean of Women at the University of Redlands, Redland, California. This was followed by her move to the Palo Alto, California, area where she began teaching and counseling. Barbara became the head counselor at Wilbur Junior High School in the Palo Alto Unified School District during which time she was active in the Palo Alto Guidance Association. Each year the association had a retreat during the fall. Barbara, on a whim, asked Wrenn to come and speak and was surprised when she learned that he accepted her offer. This was the beginning of a close professional relationship that continues today. In 1964, Dr. Varenhorst earned her PhD from Stanford University in Counseling Psychology. She considered the support and encouragement of her husband, Vernon, to be a major factor in her success during her doctoral work at Stanford. Upon completion of her doctorate degree, Dr. Varenhorst returned to Palo Alto as a counseling psychologist for two high schools. She was initially discouraged with the lack of effectiveness she experienced in counseling and described it as, “emptying the ocean one spoonful at a time.” She also felt strongly that young people needed more effective guidance.

The acquisition of a grant from the California State Department of Education and the lack of perceived effectiveness in counseling prompted Dr. Varenhorst to seek alternative approaches. She questioned the students about their needs and wants. She considered and accepted their dependence on friends and peers for advice. But, while Barbara knew that peers wanted to talk to each other, she also heard the message that their peers weren’t always helpful. And during this era of “anti-establishment,” students were less likely to seek professional help. Concerned with the needs of students and adolescents, Dr. Varenhorst approached the situation from a unique viewpoint. She hesitated at first, but then eventually realized, in her words, that “there was a vast human resource that we were underutilizing. Why not train and collaborate with students to have them be more effective in helping others? Why not have them help themselves with professional training and guidance?” Thus, Dr. Varenhorst’s vision began to take shape. It should be noted that Barbara’s intention was never to replace human service interventions, but that peer helping should be considered as an extension of such.

Capturing the highlights of Dr. Varenhorst’s career is quite difficult, given the scope and importance of her contributions. According to her, perhaps the most important aspect of her career was developing the Palo Alto Peer Counseling Program. This program was developed under a grant from the state of California to develop an exemplary guidance program. This Peer Counseling Program “exploded all over the country.” Dr. Varenhorst also is quite pleased with the success of her Peer Ministry Program. This program is a theological component that she developed which can accompany the school peer counseling curriculum. With the help of Lyle Griner, the Peer Ministry Program continues to grow rapidly through the Peer Ministry Center at the Youth and Family Institute at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minnesota (see

Barbara developed the curricula for both Peer Counseling and the Ministry and continues to edit and revise each. She gives much credit to the programs’ success to two colleagues, Jim and Pam Toole, who worked with Barbara in Palo Alto. She talks of them as being, “creative individuals whom she could depend upon for support.” Jim and Pam, who live in Minneapolis and who have done pioneering work and research in Service Learning, continue to be involved with Barbara. Barbara’s discussions with them have identified areas in Peer Helping work that can be improved and developed.

During the 10 years that followed the initiation of her Peer Counseling Program, Dr. Varenhorst’s professional life was replete with special projects. She consulted on Effective Education Training, developed other Peer Counseling Programs and coordinated National Defense Education Act (NDEA) and Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) projects. She coordinated a peer counseling project for the Psychiatry department at Stanford University Medical School and coordinated the ESEA dissemination-Peer Counseling Project in the Palo Alto School District. Dr. Varenhorst provided private consultation and training for the Search Institute in Minneapolis, Minnesota, while acting as coordinator of the Peer Counseling Program for the Palo Alto Unified School District.

Dr. Barbara Varenhorst is also, in many ways, a teacher. She enjoyed working with students from diverse teaching environments, including secondary schools, colleges, and graduate schools such as Harvard Graduate School of Education, Stanford University, and Johns Hopkins University. She has taught a wide range of subjects, including English, social studies, history, and practical instruction classes that encompass decision-making, value clarification, peer counseling, and risk taking. Dr. Varenhorst has instructed parents of mentally gifted children, parents of adolescents, social workers, and various other groups. Her teachings are as diverse as the people with whom she has worked and include training adults and students about peer counseling programs, related techniques, advanced leadership training for peer helper supervisors, and special peer helping projects involving career development and helping the critically ill. Her workshops are highly sought after throughout the United States and in other countries, including areas such as New York, Colorado, Texas, Missouri, Michigan, Florida, California, and Canada. She has presented at youth rallies, churches, schools, colleges, and conventions.

Dr. Varenhorst’s teaching experience is, perhaps, only rivaled by her far-reaching work as an international consultant and speaker. She has consulted on projects involving the improvement of guidance and counseling services in schools and districts, peer helper programs and training, the development of youth leadership, peer ministries, and improved decision-making among youth. In additions to peer helping issues, she also has addressed important topics such as working with female offenders, parent/child relationships, and parent/child communication. Dr. Varenhorst speaks about coping with peer pressure and the stress related to the complications of becoming an adolescent in today’s societies. She emphasizes caring and promotes the value of youth ministries in child rearing. Throughout her years of visionary work, Dr. Barbara Varenhorst has written more than 60 significant articles pertaining to peer counseling, decision-making, career exploration, youth development, and counseling techniques.

Her work has been published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology, American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Compass, and Contemporary Psychology. Barbara writes periodically for The Peer Facilitator Quarterly publication and acted as guest editor during part of 1997. She also has authored four books and co-authored three more. One of Dr. Varenhorst’s most meaningful accomplishments was writing a book in 1983, “Real Friends: Becoming the Friend You’d Like to Have.” Edited by her close colleague, Dr. Gilbert Wrenn, the book traces the evolution of Dr. Varenhorst’s Peer Counseling program since 1970. It provides practical advice and examples of basic skills that adolescents need to make friends. It also is filled with clear, step-by-step advice and real-life examples that teach basic skills for making friends, starting conversations, and feeling comfortable in all sorts of social situations.

Dr. Varenhorst’s writing career also included a highly successful youth column called “Youth Ask Barbara” for Youth magazine, which she also considers a highlight of her career. The column was an experience that was monumental for understanding the problems associated with adolescent youth. She received an outpouring of letters from middle-school children describing problems they faced which became a deep source of reflection for Barbara. It provided her with concrete material from which to develop a program specifically targeted at helping youth. Barbara’s accomplishments and contributions have been recognized by many organizations. She has received numerous honors and awards,including Honorary and Distinguished Alumni awards from Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, St. Olaf College, and Lincoln High School. She received a Merit Award for her book, “Real Friends,” and the Seeds of Hope Award from Wheatridge Foundation in 2001. To add to this list of credits, Dr. Varenhorst received The Barbara Varenhorst Award for Outstanding Peer Program Advisors from the California Association of Peer Programs in 1998. The receipt of these awards is a significant reflection of her unaltered commitment to peer counseling development.

The success of her peer counseling programs can be seen in any school or organization incorporating this method of teaching and reaching youth. Participants in peer helping, tutoring, and mediation are quick to point out the continued importance of such programs. In many schools, peer helping has become an elective course based on her curriculum and philosophy and considered to be essential to the safety of schools. As does Dr. Varenhorst, many school faculty and staff now recognize that successfully dealing with extraordinary experiences our youth face daily requires an alternative to parental and authoritative figures. Her peer counseling program provides such an outlet to facilitate discussion among youth for alleviating the stress of the changing family structure and environment. It is recognized that social interaction is imperative in adolescent development, and Barbara’s theory of tapping into youth resources is now available to all of us. By providing basic instruction, one individual is empowered to help another person in a friendly, trusting, compassionate manner.

“Adolescence,” according to Barbara, “can be a time of intense loneliness, when youth are reluctant to disclose problems to parents. It is critical that they have another option, someone with whom to speak. The peer counseling programs, integrated into the school environment, provide a means of getting important and timely assistance.”

Dr. Varenhorst has designed a program to teach youth how to listen, how to care, and how to make better decisions. The trained peer helpers not only help themselves but all those with whom they come into contact. Barbara credits Ira Sachnoff with her initial involvement with the National Peer Helpers Association. As co-founder and past-president of the NPHA, Dr. Varenhorst has made an historical impact on progress towards a nationally recognized image and common language for peer helping. In her view, increased unification and funding for peer helping among local, state, and national initiatives is still a very important work in progress. Dr. Varenhorst feels that it is essential for current and future leaders in the peer helping movement to further create a common vision and identity. Her recommendation to practitioners and leaders is to further integrate the peer helping model into our schools and universities. She reminds us that, “… involvement should not be a direct result of career advancement, but that it should be done with the commitment to helping first and foremost.”

Dr. Varenhorst stands firm behind the view that effective peer helping is the product of sound leadership and training. She believes that successful programs are also positively promoted among constituents and include a high level of commitment to learning, social competency, and positive identity. She says that, “By supporting and empowering our youth, we will see more positive youth leadership and greater cooperative interaction within family, friends, and community circles.” Dr. Varenhorst encourages participants to reach out and be involved; she stresses that peer helping develops skills that become a way of life.

Dr. Barbara Varenhorst is truly a pioneer in promoting a program designed to encourage growth and vision in our youth today.

Katherine Locke is a graduate student in the Mental Health Counseling program, and Russell A. Sabella, PhD is Associate Professor, both at Florida Gulf Coast University. Inquiries may be made to Dr. Sabella, 10501 FGCU BLVD SOUTH, College of Education, Florida Gulf Coast University, Fort Myers, FL 33965-6565 or via email at [email protected].