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updated: 1/17/2012 11:40 AM

JUST works to help DuPage jail inmates change their lives

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  • Susan Neustrom, executive director of JUST, works at the DuPage County jail to reduce recidivism. "I don't like to sit still," she says. "I want to see movement. I want to see movement fast."

      Susan Neustrom, executive director of JUST, works at the DuPage County jail to reduce recidivism. "I don't like to sit still," she says. "I want to see movement. I want to see movement fast."
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • Susan Neustrom stands in front of the DuPage County jail, where JUST has an office to offer education classes, addiction recovery programs and spiritual support to inmates.

      Susan Neustrom stands in front of the DuPage County jail, where JUST has an office to offer education classes, addiction recovery programs and spiritual support to inmates.
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

 
 

For many inmates released from the DuPage County jail, it can be a short trip to the outside world and back.

Susan Neustrom, executive director of JUST, wants to change that.

"We don't want to see them back," said Neustrom, who was hired in fall 2010 to head the nonprofit organization that stands for Justice, Understanding, Service and Teaching. "We want the recidivism rate in DuPage County to go down."

Started by the Diocese of Joliet 25 years ago, JUST offers inmates programs in education, addiction recovery and spirituality. But all too often a prisoner's commitment to change falters when he or she returns to the same environment, Neustrom said.

The Woodridge resident was brought on board to start a re-entry program that will provide mentors and support for inmates after they leave the jail. Such a program makes sound financial as well as moral sense, Neustrom said. Nationally, 60 percent of those locked behind bars return within three years, and four-fifths of those do it within six months.

The re-entry program will start this year with JUST seeking partnerships with churches and other organizations to provide mentoring teams, Neustrom said.

"Can't wait any longer," she said. "I don't like to sit still. I want to see movement. I want to see movement fast."

Dropout to Ph.D.

At a point in her life when many people would be looking forward to retirement, Neustrom is moving full-speed ahead. She knows transforming lives is possible because her own is evidence of how dramatic the change can be.

A high-school dropout at age 17, Neustrom was convinced she was an academic failure and not as smart as her peers. She married and had two children. Driven by a desire to help others, she took an entry-level position at a bank, worked her way up to assistant vice president and volunteered at numerous organizations.

"I look for opportunities to reach positions where I could make a difference," she said.

But Neustrom knew she could not reach her goal of working for a nonprofit without going back to pursue her education. At age 48, she passed a GED test offered at College of DuPage. It took her two more years to work up the courage to enroll in COD's Adult Fast Track Program, where she earned associate degrees in management and retail marketing.

As her confidence grew, Neustrom earned employee-of-the-year honors at her bank, based largely on projects she completed as part of her course work at the community college.

Neustrom went on to earn a bachelor's degree in management from National-Louis University, a master's in organizational leadership from Lewis University and a doctorate in education from Argosy University.

Once she had her master's, she took a position with Garden Center Services in Burbank, which serves adults with mental disabilities.

"My true calling has always been to help people reach their full potential," she said. "That is my passion."

When she lost her job after three years due to state budget cuts, Neustrom focused on completing her doctoral dissertation and, in the process, became acquainted with JUST.

Jeanne Rotert, secretary/treasurer of the JUST board, said Neustrom quickly grasped a long-term vision for the organization and mapped out steps how to get there. Key to fulfilling that vision is partnering with other organizations.

"Our best hopes for her have been exceeded by reality," Rotert said. "She is very collaborative and a catalyst for starting new relationships that are positive."

JUST and beyond

Neustrom said her greatest satisfaction at JUST has been talking up the organization to residents and organizations, telling stories of its successes, and acquainting people with its mission. She wants her listeners to realize that jail inmates are part of the community, too.

"Incarceration is a symptom of a much larger problem," she said.

Neustrom plans to start a speakers bureau to help tell JUST's story. With a full-time staff of four and about 130 volunteers, the organization served 3,200 of the jail's roughly 15,000 inmates last year. It receives half of its funding from DuPage County and the rest from foundations and donations.

The programs JUST offers are voluntary. They include GED, ESL, parenting and anger management classes; literacy tutoring; life skills training in areas of job readiness and financial management; recovery addiction programs; and Bible studies and spiritual support to inmates of any faith.

Neustrom is especially proud of the parenting classes, recalling one prisoner who said he never understood the impact his incarceration had on his young child until he took the class.

"When I come home, I'm going to be a much better parent," Neustrom recalls the man saying.

With prisoners in the jail for terms that range from one month to one year, classes are necessarily short-term, Neustrom said. Ninety percent of the inmates are male. The majority are between the ages of 17 and 25, although they can be as old as 85. Eighty percent of their offenses are drug-related, Neustrom estimates. With that in mind, the jail has created a separate pod two years ago for prisoners serious about overcoming their addictions so they can receive more support.

"Nobody works harder than Sue," Rotert said. "She is such a creative thinker."

While Neustrom has given herself unsparingly to JUST's mission, this grandmother and great-grandmother still has energy to spare. She serves as an adjunct faculty member at three universities, on the boards of several organizations and is working on certification to be a personal coach.

Sometime in the future, she would like to write a book.

"I'm a visionary. I see what can be," she said.

For information on JUST, visit justofdupage.org.

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