A chorus of young girls’ voices echoed across the campus on a recent morning as Asia Ciaravino, just six days into her new role as president and CEO of the Children’s Shelter, walked among the buildings and playscapes. 

“It’s so fun to have kids on campus,” Ciaravino said of the summer day camp program hosted by the nonprofit Girls Inc. at the shelter, a nonprofit dedicated to serving children and families in crisis.

Nearly a year since the state ordered the Children’s Shelter to close its Family Tapestry division, no children have been housed in the emergency shelter there. 

Family Tapestry held a contract with the state to place Bexar County children but struggled to find appropriate spots for them. A court-appointed monitor also reported unsafe conditions at its residential Whataburger Center for Children and Youth, inadequate staffing and abuse by older children of younger ones.

The nonprofit’s emergency shelter The Cottage also closed and the Shelter’s previous leader, Annette Rodriguez, resigned last year in the wake of a state investigation.

In April, the board announced Ciaravino would take the helm of the embattled shelter, a place now focused on its future.

“She brings a wealth of experience in nonprofit management and leadership, and her established local relationships will be crucial as we engage with the community and our clients moving forward,” stated Jessica Gonzalez, chairwoman of the board.

The play therapy room is filled with toys, games and role-playing activities for children to express themselves.
The play therapy room is filled with toys, games, and role-playing activities for children to express themselves. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Ciaravino is the former president and CEO of SA Youth, a position she said philanthropist Harvey Najim asked her to lead following a brief stint at the Tricentennial Commission and top posts at KLRN and the Public Theater of San Antonio. 

Born in Michigan, Ciaravino grew up moving frequently across that state and found an early passion for stage acting. She is married to Tony Ciaravino and has a 28-year-old stepdaughter and two daughters, ages 21 and 17. 

She runs daily, walks on a treadmill at her standing desk, and plans to install exercise equipment at the shelter later this year.

In her new office at the Children’s Shelter, on the second floor of its main building facing Woodlawn Avenue, Ciaravino called the job she sought after a “dream space,” and not just for her. 

“For a lot of people in the nonprofit sector, we all have looked at the Children’s Shelter as a model and a beacon in this community [for] the work that they’ve done here,” she said. 

Despite the organization’s recent struggles, it still attracted her. “To me, that’s an opportunity for growth and rebirth and learning.”

Besides, she added, “I love kids … and people that just don’t have a voice, people that are vulnerable. We need advocates for people. It’s important.”

Just over a week into the job, Ciaravino said she’s been on a listening tour of the nonprofit, getting feedback from the 65 staff members on how they want to help their clients — children and adults in crisis. 

“We all wanted to turn that chapter over and say, ‘OK, we’ve gone through so much. Now, we have a clean slate, we can do and be whoever we want to be,’” Ciaravino said. “They work with people every day. What are they seeing and hearing?”

Ciaravino said she sees the future of the organization as providing a comprehensive set of services for foster care children and families. The board of directors will make decisions “very soon” about what services the shelter provides going forward.

“We could always be opening the shelter in a year — that could very well happen [but] I don’t know,” she said.

Ciaravino also hopes the Children’s Shelter can expand into more parts of Bexar County and the region, with counseling centers in other areas where mental health services are scarce. 

Though the Shelter has maintained its state licenses, it’s unclear whether it will provide emergency housing again in the future. Locally and across the state, the increasing shortage of placement facilities has plagued the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services; in the first half of 2021, the state had lost at least 1,000 beds for children, mostly from places that house multiple children, according to a Texas Tribune report.

With fundraising being an important part of any nonprofit leader’s job, Ciaravino admits she is facing obstacles in that arena that are common to leadership changes. But her previous working relationships with local philanthropists and charitable foundations are strong. 

And “there are a lot of people that really believe in the work that we do, and they will be champions, standing right by my side, helping regain trust and continuing to rebuild relationships and I’m grateful for that,” she said. 

She’s also doing a lot of hiring — “We’re rebuilding right now,” she said — for all sorts of positions. More than 90 people were laid off last summer when the Family Tapestry division was dissolved.

At the shelter’s Hope Center, five full-time, licensed counselors provide outpatient therapy for children and families exposed to abuse, neglect, abandonment and violence. Last year, the center served 412 children ages 3 to 17. 

Two additional counselors work with Communities In Schools and the Children’s Shelter staff assists in training other agencies on how to deliver trauma-informed care

In her first days on the job, Ciaravino said she’s been taking a lot of calls from others in the nonprofit and foster care community asking how they can help. 

“Everybody wants The Children’s Shelter to be successful and to be back in the game,” she said. “This is a very supportive sector — like I’ve never seen before. There is no competing … because everyone is there for the same reason and that’s for the kids.”

Help with transitioning into the role has come from retired nonprofit executive Michael Bennett, who served as the interim CEO after Rodriguez resigned. 

When children arrive they can visit this snack station to refuel while reading one of the many posters featuring the word "hope" dotted around the facility.
When children arrive they can visit this snack station to refuel while reading one of the many posters featuring the word “hope” dotted around the facility. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

“Basically, my only support to Asia is to try to give her as much information and perspective on what I’ve seen over the 17 weeks before she got here so she has a little bit of a feel for what’s going on right at this moment, and how we got here,” Bennett said. “I think what she’s going to tell you is, we’re going forward.”

On a small, round table in a corner of Ciaravino’s office, a deck of 2-inch cards is scattered face-down. She invites visitors to choose two and reveal the words on each. Her own selections were full of meaning for her: “patience” and “abundance.” 

“I need to be able to breathe and understand that I’m in a space that has been through a lot,” she said. “I’m a very extreme, high-energy person. I want everything to be fixed. I want everything to be better. And I understand that that’s a process.”

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.