By Tiffany Merlo Phelps

Mary Lourdes Saenz learned the importance of meeting the right people at crucial times in life at the age of 18 when she moved to Jacksonville from Texas all by herself. 

“I was blessed to find the right people and to find a job right away,” she said. 

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Later in life, she would again find herself in the right place at the right time, meeting people who helped her restart a business that was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. She felt so inspired by the support that she had received over the years that it only seemed natural to want to find a way to lift others up as well. Add to that an encounter that Saenz had with a young woman in the foster care system, and Saenz found her mission. 

More specifically, Saenz wants to reach young women in the community who are aging out of foster care and provide a strong support system. The non-profit that she created a year and a half ago, Sisters-in-Arms, aims to do just that by offering tools to empower young women to achieve economic independence and acquire personal development skills. 

“I want them to know that they are special and that there is someone who loves them,” said Saenz. “We want to provide the resources needed to succeed once they enter society.” 

Saenz has put together a team that will provide etiquette classes, instruction in how to look and dress with confidence and money management skills. One day programs focused on education, mentorship and community will be offered at Sisters-in-Arms this summer, providing young women with a laptop, resume support and an interview outfit. Through donors and sponsors, the program will be delivered at no cost to the young women. 

“We all want to find the light for these young women,” she said, adding that Bible study is also offered, but always optional. 

Saenz, who works as a Ponte Vedra Inn and Club ambassador, said that she has met some of the most generous and philanthropic people at her job, allowing her to build her non-profit organically. She also credited the Our Lady Star of the Sea parish, community members such as Dwight Hibbard and her board of directors with giving her support. 

Saenz said Sisters-in-Arms will serve women between the ages of 18 and 24 — a critical time for many young people coming out of foster care. 

Statistics show that over 27,000 children in the United States age out of the foster care system each year, with 20 percent becoming homeless the day they age out. Seven out of 10 girls who age out of the foster care system will become pregnant before the age of 21, and kids aging out of foster care have less than a 3 percent chance of earning a college degree. 

Saenz, who has a background in research and development, said she is determined to change those statistics. Saenz has held two fundraisers so far, one a golf tournament that raised $22,000 last year and a “Pickleball with a Purpose” competition in March. More events are planned, she said, with the goal of building a house for the young women as a transitional and safe space. 

Sisters-in-Arms board vice-chair Steph McFee said the organization is focused on starting the pilot program with two or three local organizations. Funding, she said, is needed to support the full six-week program where young women will meet weekly, have a mentor, and learn how to get the job they want to get started on their life journey. 

“We will also look for businesses to offer internships, first jobs and more to help these girls get stable and on their feet,” said McFee, adding that mentors are also needed. “We have to realize many do not have a place to go, so how do we make that transition into adulthood smoother.” 

Saenz said she has enjoyed working with other non-profits in the area, sharing ideas and supporting one another. 

“The really neat thing since I’ve been in the nonprofit sector is how everyone helps each other out,” she said. “They show up to my events for moral support and vice versa.” 

Seamark Ranch Chief Executive Officer Greg Voss said that he looks forward to working with Saenz. Seamark Ranch, established 15 years ago, is a Christian home and family system that helps children from families who are in crisis. It is located in Green Cove Springs. 

“Seamark is consistently seeking out partners who can assist our young people as they transition into adulthood and the responsibility that goes along with that. Under Mary’s leadership, Sisters-in-Arms provides the support that gives them the tools and the opportunities they need to help them grow and thrive,” he said. 

[Author’s Note: For more information about Sisters-in-arms, visit]

Photo courtesy Mary Lourdes Saenz 
Sisters-in-Arms founder Mary Lourdes Saenz with Dwight Hibbard and Mr. and Mrs. James Marx.

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