At 18, Malia Sandberg left her home in Daleville, Indiana, for a mission trip in Mexico. “The experience awakened something in me,” she said. From then on, she was drawn to multicultural people and experiences, particularly to the underserved and overlooked.
“I was drawn to people in struggle, not because I felt I could solve their problems or make it right, but I felt I could offer presence, to walk alongside them — to learn and grow together,” she said.
Sandberg graduated in 2014 from Ball State University with a double major in Spanish and elementary education. She began teaching at Inspire Academy — Muncie’s first public charter school.
“I was 22 and had mastered college, but I hadn’t mastered life,” she said. “I would drive from Inspire on the south side of Muncie to my apartment on Wheeling, and I felt disconnected from the students and families I served. I felt like there was more for me.”
At the time, her husband, James Sandberg, was applying for graduate school in Urban Planning at Ball State University. He, too, was driven to improve the quality of life in Muncie’s south side. The two began attending Avondale United Methodist Church and bought a house in the South Central neighborhood.
“We moved to South Central with our hands and our hearts open,” Malia recalled. “We had some romanticized views, mostly because we were raised to think systems are the answer. But we quickly learned that systems like law enforcement and healthcare are not sufficient and sometimes even chew people up and spit them out.”
Neighbors caring for neighbors
Malia became part of a network of neighbors working to fill the gaps and weave a web of security for the city’s most vulnerable. She helped with neighborhood cleanups and counseled teen mothers. James served as an AmeriCorps VISTA member with the Greater Muncie Habitat for Humanity.
The Sandbergs turned their shed into a studio apartment for people in need of a temporary stay. “I am not the answer and cannot often solve the problem, which can be tough to accept at times,” Malia said. “I can, though, offer a clean toothbrush, sometimes a room or a ride.”
But the Sandbergs have and continue to offer far more. After Malia’s first year of teaching, she and James became godparents of her former student, Alexis. The Sandbergs’ shuttled Alexis to and from basketball games, celebrated holidays together, and converted their spare room into Alexis' bedroom. Six years later, in 2022, the couple adopted her.
“Now, as Alexis approaches adulthood, we stand in awe of her courage, boldness and bravery,” Malia said. “We had no idea how to parent at 23, but we fell in love with her and learned together. Our parents saw our hearts were in it, and they have continued to be supportive.”
A focus on children and youth
The Sandbergs are a magnet for kids. Their biological children, Lila, 6, and Amos, 4, invite friends and neighbor kids over for popsicles on the porch or basketball games at the pocket park across the street.
“Yes, I am the designated porch snack lady,” Malia laughed, “but people are equally generous with our family.” A former student’s mom, for instance, brought the Sandbergs tamales and a stuffed dog for Amos. “We don’t speak the same language, but we both speak neighborly love into existence,” Malia added.
And that love doesn’t come with strings.
“American society values what we can offer, and I am constantly reminded here that you are the gift, you, not what you can do. Your presence is enough,” she said. “I have many neighbors who cannot offer me a thing, but they can play tic-tac-toe with my child on the porch or sing them a song or listen to their long and winding stories.”
Last year, Malia led a Monday morning prayer walk to talk and pray with neighbors and friends about their lives and the school. The group met at Maring-Hunt Library before weaving a mile loop around South View Elementary, where Malia taught for three years before leaving in spring 2023. “My faith is my anchor,” Malia said, “whether that be in the classroom, courtroom, the sidewalks or shuffling my kids to and from.”
Malia said she left South View to explore her passion for broader community building and outreach. In early January, she became the program manager for TeenWorks, a Muncie nonprofit working to empower teens to achieve excellence in community, college and career.
“I am grateful for a new opportunity to apply my expertise, talents and passion to mobilize Muncie teens in our local community, and support youth in reaching their post-secondary goals.”
James is thriving as a life coach at the Excel Center while he completes his master’s in educational psychology. Malia said her family lives to walk alongside people in struggle, with a respectful heart and open hands.
Connect with Malia and the South Central neighborhood on Facebook.