Susan Sandberg eases the glass door of the jail lobby open, quickly peeking over her black-framed glasses to survey the room. Like a scene from a corny made-for-TV movie, a gust of wind blows her short blond hair.
Today, she dons a black leather jacket, blue jeans and pearls, a departure from her colorful, everyday ensembles, which usually feature chunky turquoise jewelry and red shoes.
"I don't normally wear my pearls to these things," she says with a laugh. "But I've got to rush off after this, jump into my little black dress, and I'm off to another event."
After living in Bloomington for 25 years, Sandberg, a woman of many titles, including City Councilwoman, packs her to-do list every week, but always makes time to spend her Saturdays teaching theater to inmates at the Monroe County Correctional Center.
Tania Karnofsky, coordinator for New Leaf - New Life, said in the program's initial stages, many members of the community were interested in volunteering for the theater program, but Sandberg was the only one who has stuck with it. New Leaf seeks to rehabilitate jail inmates through education and counseling.
"When it comes to crime and punishment, I am on the side of rehabilitation as opposed to just being punitive in our approach to making sure people are following the laws and living in the community in a safe and civil manner."- Susan Sandberg, City Councilwoman
"I first met her at a meeting we had at The Bakehouse," Karnofsky said. "She had a lot of energy and enthusiasm, and I could tell she loves the theater and acting."
Sandberg attended IU in the 1970s, and although she felt lost when it came to choosing an academic major, she spent most of her time "majoring" in the Singing Hoosiers and enjoying the arts. Before finishing, she left college, got married and returned after a divorce with her only daughter Katy to earn a bachelor's degree in Psychology.
With a degree, a background in social work and "a lot of experience in the school of hard knocks," Sandberg got a job working as program coordinator in the Arts Administration Department in IU's School of Public and Environmental Affairs. She also was appointed to fill a vacancy on the city council in January 2007 and was elected as an at-large member the next November.
Sandberg has taught the theater program in the jail for about two-and-a-half years.
She said she chooses material and reads and analyzes the works with the inmates, who are chosen by New Leaf - New Life to be part of the program. The men must have an interest in learning theater and working toward rehabilitation.
Sandberg said while reading and analyzing the plays is educational, she thinks the relationships she builds with the inmates are more important. "If they know that people from the outside are interested to come in to work with them on the inside, they know people in this community care about them," she said.
Not only does Sandberg teach a class inside the jail, but she and Karnofsky also play host to weekly, optional support group meetings for the men who have been released.
Karnofsky said about 90 percent of the men from the support groups have kept in touch after being released, a result that proves something good is being done. "This is our way to literally see the evidence that what we are doing could make a difference," she said. "If people had relationships with people who are in jail and kept those relationships going on the outside, it might have something to do with cutting down recidivism."
"I could tell (Sandberg) loves the theater and acting."- Tania Karnofsky, New Leaf - New Life
Despite Sandberg's goals to keep her theater program graduates from landing back in jail, she said she prefers not to know what crimes the inmates committed to end up there in the first place.
"That's not why I come in," she said. "I'm not their therapist. I'm not their probation officer. I'm strictly here to share with them my love of the theater, my belief that the arts do heal. ... I think it is better for me to work with them objectively and honestly."
Sandberg said the inmates are fairly receptive by the time they come to her program, and maintaining relationships is just one step of many the community can do to correct inmates' behaviors.
"When it comes to crime and punishment, I am on the side of rehabilitation as opposed to just being punitive in our approach to making sure people are following the laws and living in the community in a safe and civil manner," she said.
Sandberg said volunteering with New Leaf's theater program is one of the most rewarding experiences of her life because she can see she is making a difference. She plans on working with the inmates at the jail for as long as the program exists.
"I'm not doing this on a grand scale, but I am helping one man at a time," she said. "That has got to mean something."
Katherine Hagan can be reached at .