Whether she's administering Community Development grants or riding her mustang in dressage competitions, Margene Swarts is enjoying the joint benefits of her work and play.
At work, Margene Swarts spends her days toiling with the problems brought on by an urban society: unaffordable housing, broken sidewalks, inadequate health care and disputes between landlords and tenants.
It's after work she finds relief from the day-to-day grind, on the open trails of Clinton Lake and in a quiet horse barn southeast of town.
"Sometimes the job is very stressful, and I can just saddle up and just ride," Swarts said. "I don't have to do anything or think about anything. I can just go out and ride and clear my head and be outdoors."
Urban work and rural fun may appear far apart on the life scale, but for Swarts -- longtime city employee and avid horsewoman -- the two complement one another like a handful of carrots and her horse, Red Gauntlet.
"I don't know if my job allows me to keep my horse habit or if my horse habit keeps me working," Swarts said. "It's been a good match for me."
Swarts, 46, is Community Development manager for the city of Lawrence, with direct oversight for more than $2 million this year in federal grants and program revenues intended to help provide affordable housing, revitalize neighborhoods and bankroll community organizations serving low- to moderate-income people.
She's been at it for 11 years now, working with neighborhood representatives, social-service organizations and applicants looking for help making ends meet. Right now she's working on the upcoming rounds of grants, in preparation for recommendations to be issued this spring.
It's satisfying work, Swarts said, because it involves working with people and helping people who need the help. She administers $93,000 in emergency shelter grants, which help people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless; $549,000 in housing grants, which help people afford places to live; and $1.47 million in federal block grants, which bolster target neighborhoods and organizations that serve people in need.
"These grants make good things happen for our community," she said.
But ask Swarts about her mustang, and her eyes light up.
Riding horses not only provides her an escape from the piles of paperwork at city hall, but also takes her back to a childhood spent wearing a
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sequined blouse and winning blue, red and white ribbons at area horse shows.
Swarts grew up in Bonner Springs, but her family kept up to five horses on the outskirts on town. Young Margene used to help her dad round up cattle and, more often, break out onto trails with Stormy, a Palomino quarter horse, until her teen years.
That's when the family sold its horses and bought a 16-foot Crestliner ski boat. A teen-age Margene learned to ski, and enjoyed heading to the Lake of the Ozarks on weekends, but never could shake her love for horses.
She earned a bachelor's degree in education, specializing in English, from Emporia State University before moving with her husband, Alan, to Liberal, where she worked as a building inspector for the city. She couldn't find a horse to ride.
They moved to Lawrence in 1979, and Swarts became the city's housing and environmental inspector. She earned a master's degree in public administration from Kansas University in 1989.
Then, in 1990, a friend asked Swarts if she wanted to ride horses outside of town. A rush of memories poured back -- about all the walking, the trotting, the cantering and the trail riding that had brightened her youth.
"I remember wondering, literally, if it really was like riding a bicycle," Swarts said. "And it's true. It really does come back to you."
Today, Swarts still is learning.
She and Red Gauntlet are learning the intricate sport of dressage, with once-a-week tutoring from Cheryl Flanagan, owner and instructor of White Horse Equestrian Centre southeast of Lawrence. Dressage, Swarts explained, is the French word for "training," and features a regimented routine of walks, trots and canters involving horse and rider.
Swarts loves it. After competing regionally for the first time last year, she qualified for October's American Royal in Kansas City, Mo., where she took third in one test during an open show, and finished 11th out of 13 entrants in the championship test.
The formal riding attire -- black jacket, white breeches, knee-high black boots and a black leather riding helmet -- offer quite a contrast to the work boots atmosphere of the basement offices at city hall, where building inspectors, engineers and a Community Development manager handle their business.
Regulations, interpretations, official judgments. The terms can apply to both worlds: urban and rural, competition and work.
"With dressage, the whole point is the communication between the horse and the rider," Swarts said. "It's not an ordering thing. It's a partnership thing. The horse trusts you."
-- Mark Fagan's phone message number is 832-7188. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.