When Annette Rodriguez started working at the Children’s Shelter in 1997, she had just completed undergraduate degrees in history and education at Our Lady of the Lake University. Unable to find a teaching position right away, she applied and was hired as an administrative assistant at the Children’s Shelter, a job she thought would be temporary.

Rodriguez eventually found a teaching position, but quickly learned that balancing being a first-year educator with returning to OLLU to earn a master’s degree in psychology was going to be difficult. She returned to the Children’s Shelter and began working in the development department, creating and implementing programs for underserved youth in local schools and other vulnerable groups. She later added an executive MBA from the University of Texas at San Antonio to her résumé.

It was during the time that Rodriguez realized that the Children’s Shelter was where she wanted to be.

“I’m an entrepreneur – a risk-taker,” Rodriguez said. “The Children’s Shelter allowed me to do those things while I was here. They embrace change.”

Fast-forward to 2017: At 44, Rodriguez is the current president and CEO of the organization and has been for the last six years. She celebrated her 20-year anniversary with the Children’s Shelter in August.

Rodriguez told the Rivard Report that she knew from a young age that she wanted to work with vulnerable children and create opportunities for them to experience positive outcomes despite undesirable life circumstances. What has kept her at the Children’s Shelter is the organization’s mission, she said, and the trust the board of directors and her coworkers place in her to produce meaningful outcomes.

During her time in the development department, Rodriguez created and implemented a teen parenting program, which fostered collaboration between area schools and student mothers. This pilot program was the starting point of the Children’s Shelter’s family strengthening programs.

The parenting program started off working with just 40 high school mothers per year. Rodriguez said that the family strengthening programs now serve up to 3,000 people annually under six different service umbrellas.

These programs include Compadre Y Compadre, a parenting program for male caregivers that provides knowledge, skills, and encouragement for fathers looking to establish nurturing relationships with children. The Nurse Family Partnership is another community health program that works with Medicaid-eligible mothers pregnant with their first child.

Volunteers execute campus improvement projects that include landscaping, painting, cleaning common areas and recreational space, and enhancing outdoor space at the Children’s Shelter Residential Campus.
Volunteers work on campus improvement projects at the Children’s Shelter Residential Campus. Credit: Courtesy / H-E-B Tournament of Champions

As the Children’s Shelter began expanding its scope of services, Rodriguez saw it as an opportunity to become “more deliberate,” to ensure that the organization’s work addressed key struggles for the populations it serves, “helping them with whatever support they need.”

Rodriguez was integral to the Children’s Shelters trauma-informed care accreditation, which is given to organizations whose programs and service model promote safety and recovery from adversity as the foundation for its services. To receive this accreditation – which it has had for 17 years – the shelter underwent a rigorous third-party review process to ensure that the organization upholds the highest ethical standards when it comes to trauma-informed services.

“What we do is hard work because [we] are dealing with hard situations,” Rodriguez said. “[We] are dealing with children who have been abused, abandoned, neglected, in addition to substance abuse and domestic violence. We all have a passion for this work.”

Being flexible, adaptive, and responsive to the needs of the community has been pioneer to both her personal success and that of the organization, she added.

“When I was younger and had a smaller program I was able to be involved in everything,” Rodriguez said. She has learned “the art of letting go,” which to her means being supportive while taking a step back in order to “see others really flourish, produce outcomes, and [make an] impact,” without her direct involvement.

Anais Biera Miracle, vice president of external affairs at the Children’s Shelter, told the Rivard Report that Rodriguez’s forward-thinking empowers employees to be innovative as they work to improve the lives of youth who have been impacted by trauma.

“[Rodriguez] pushes us to be responsive to the community, and because she thinks outside the box, we feel empowered to do so,” Biera Miracle said.

The foster care programs at the Children’s Shelter have been in place since the 1940s and have expanded to meet populations’ increasingly complicated needs. The shelter is currently working with 79 foster care families who provide care for up to 200 children annually. At the time of this interview, Rodriguez told the Rivard Report that the shelter was looking to grow that number.

Recently the Children’s Shelter was given that opportunity. As Hurricane Harvey displaced children and families along the Texas coast, the shelter prepared to take in vulnerable individuals making their way to San Antonio. Shelter employees immediately took account of available space and added the maximum number of beds that the space could safely accommodate.

During a recent press conference, State Sen. Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio) recognized Rodriguez’s achievements – her 20-year anniversary with the organization as well as her leadership in serving some of the state’s most vulnerable people.

“We are working hard to accomplish work that the Children’s Shelter has been successfully doing for over 100 years,” Uresti said with a nod toward Rodriguez, noting that decades of experience in rehousing traumatized individuals helped the city respond to Harvey victims in a swift and effective way, immediately addressing concerns through a trauma-informed lens.

Rodriguez told the Rivard Report that when she first became CEO at age 38, she “didn’t know if she would be taken seriously by major community leaders and donors.” As her career evolved from program development to include more supervision, she now finds herself successfully running a $12 million organization.

She attributes her success to the evolution of her leadership style, which she says has become more flexible over time in order to “change with whatever presents itself,” to cater services to the specific needs of a community as it changes over time.

“We are here to provide a service to the community and that’s how we have to approach our work,” Rodriguez said. “Change is constant and our staff recognizes that.”

The passion that she and her fellow Children’s Shelter employees have for their work is paramount to the organization’s success, she said. As they work to meet the needs of the community, services have expanded to include mental health services for youth in foster care, which Rodriguez considers a highlight of her career with the shelter.

In October 2015, the shelter’s Harvey E. Najim Hope Center, a mental health facility serving children and families impacted by abuse and neglect, opened its doors. The first of its kind in South Texas, the Hope Center offers trauma-specific treatment by licensed therapists and social workers trained in trauma models with proven results.

The Harvey E. Najim Hope Center. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
The Harvey E. Najim Hope Center.

During the 85th legislative session, SB 11 was passed. The law takes foster care placement responsibilities out of the hands of the State Department of Family and Protective Services and turns it over to municipal government and nonprofits, who may use state funds toward localized efforts. Rodriguez has been an integral force in raising funds that have made the growth of the Children’s Shelter possible, and she is currently spearheading the campaign for the Children’s Shelter to become one of the state’s recognized community care providers.

Roxanne Bond, board member for the Children’s Shelter and executive committee chair, told the Rivard Report that “[Rodriguez] has made a huge impact on the children and families in our community who need quality care.

“She is an incredible leader and is absolutely committed to making a difference,” Bond said. “I am proud to be her board chair as we prepare for the future of child welfare in Bexar County.”

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.