An Equestrian Who Doesn’t Just Horse Around

Kelsey Urban knows a thing or two about hard work, dedication and helping others. A high school senior and an A student, she is also a lifelong equestrian whose passion for quarter horses and for serving others has helped her become a social entrepreneur. When just a seventh-grader, Kelsey learned about the problem of malaria — a deadly disease caused by the bite of an infected mosquito. Moved to respond, she launched a business that has since allowed her to contribute more than $4,000 to NetsforLife®, Episcopal Relief & Development’s program partnership to fight malaria in sub-Saharan Africa.

It all began in early 2007, when the Rt. Rev. James Curry, Bishop Suffragan of the Diocese of Connecticut, visited Kelsey’s church, St. James Episcopal in Glastonbury. Having just returned from Mozambique, in southern Africa, Bishop Curry talked about the many people in the country – especially children – affected by malaria. But through NetsforLife®, families were receiving mosquito nets that helped protect them from contracting the disease, along with education and training on how to use and maintain the nets.

Kelsey was deeply affected by the bishop’s words. “When he said that so many children die from malaria every day, it really caught my attention,” she said. “And then to hear that nets cost only about $12 and can save lives — that was pretty powerful.” She left feeling called to help in some way, but wasn’t sure exactly how.

A few weeks later, while at a horse show, she saw a vendor selling denim jackets. One of them looked just like the one Kelsey owned, but was embellished with Austrian crystals and priced at almost $200. It struck her that she could design and sell similar styles at a much lower cost by using secondhand jackets. This would also have the benefits of reduced environmental impact and supporting the missions of thrift shops. With the help of her mom, Kelsey began scouring Goodwill stores — and Urban Denim Designs was born.

According to Kelsey, each decorated jacket is unique and starts with looking at its basic design and topstitching. She then uses colored Swarovski Austrian crystals to accent the collars, cuffs, pockets and other areas. Her products have also included bags, purses and pet accessories, but she says the jackets have been the bestsellers, especially for children.

Kelsey has sold her wares at horse shows and home parties, online, and even through a storefront business for a time. The most fruitful outlet, however, has been her speaking engagements at churches around the Diocese of Connecticut. On these visits, she typically shares during the service about the effects of malaria and invites listeners to help fight the disease by making a purchase. Her moving message, along with the opportunity to support the cause while enjoying attractive products at very reasonable prices, has resulted in a steady stream of orders over the years. One-third of Urban Denim Design’s profits are donated to NetsforLife®, with the rest going back into the business and toward her riding expenses.

This fall, Kelsey is adding the college application process to her already full plate: school, church, riding and serving as secretary of the Connecticut Quarter Horse Youth Association. Further, for the past two years, she’s had the chance to work with renowned coaches and ride a nationally recognized horse, Radical McCue, an hour from home. The commute and additional practice time have paid off handsomely: This month, Kelsey fulfilled her dream of competing in the American Quarter Horse Youth World Championship Show in Oklahoma City.

Staying involved with the business (especially the lengthy process of designing the jackets) will be difficult, but Kelsey is determined to keep it going in some form. Seeing Bishop Curry’s photos of women and children in Mozambique receiving nets, and knowing they’ll be healthier as a result, makes all the time and effort worthwhile, she says.

According to Kelsey, launching Urban Denim Designs has been a great experience. She’s gained skills in running a business: managing a checkbook, budgeting, public speaking and more. Perhaps most importantly, though, she’s learned that one person with a vision can go a long way toward making the world a better place.

“When I started, I didn’t realize the impact my story would have,” she said. “It’s been nice to be an inspiration to others. I didn’t think the business would really take off, but I learned that something might really make a difference if you just give it a try.”

“Inspiration takes many forms and Kelsey is a wonderful example. She embodies this in her business, Urban Denim Designs, which has generously supported the fight against malaria,” stated Joy Shigaki, Director of the NetsforLife® Inspiration Fund and Church Campaigns. “Kelsey’s efforts also have enabled many people to learn about the problem of malaria and take action. We hope her story will help others’ creativity to take root and become part of the NetsforLife® Inspiration Fund.” 


Photos courtesy of Kelsey Urban