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P.E.O. members Ruth Chancey, Kathy Pynn, and Donna Brandvold participated in the Sioux City Reciprocity Founders' Day Luncheon in April 2009. The international organization with roots in the Midwest has about a dozen local chapters. (Submitted photo)

Organizations with initials have been misunderstood far too long and far too much, maintained the president of one such philanthropic group.

“It's time for P.E.O. to come out of the closet,” said Teresa Bailey, who directs Chapter DX, one of a dozen P.E.O. chapters in Sioux City. “For too many years, people have thought the group was some sort of secret society and it's not.”

The international organization has its roots in the Midwest. P.E.O. was founded on Jan. 21, 1869, by seven students at Iowa Wesleyan College in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. This circle of kindred spirits – bonded by their enthusiasm for women's opportunities – eventually expanded to include women off campus, as well.

Today, P.E.O. has grown from that tiny membership of seven to almost a quarter of a million members in chapters throughout the U.S. and Canada, with headquarters in Des Moines, Iowa.

Friendship is the cornerstone of P.E.O. It is the legacy left by those first women and it thrives in a shared sisterhood. P.E.O. exists to be a source of encouragement and support for women to realize their potential in whatever worthwhile endeavor they choose, Bailey emphasized.

“Education is a strong focus of each chapter,” she said. “We provide support for furthering women's education, from providing scholarships to covering transportation and child care expenses in some cases.”

P.E.O. sponsors no less than six international philanthropies, or projects, designed to assist women with their educational goals. More than 77,800 women have benefited from the organization's educational grants, loans, awards, special projects and stewardship of Cottey College, an independent liberal arts and science college located in Nevada, Mo., owned and supported by the P.E.O.

To date, P.E.O. has awarded Educational Loan Fund dollars totaling more than $125 million, International Peace Scholarships are more than $25 million, Program for Continuing Education grants are more than $35 million, Scholar Awards are more than $12 million and P.E.O. STAR Scholarships are $640,000.

P.E.O. is structured through local chapters, state, district, province (Canada), national and international. Meeting time, date and places vary from chapter to chapter, as do programs and dues structures, explained Bailey.

“I joined because my mother belonged to a P.E.O. chapter while I was growing up,” she said. “It was just natural for me to join as well.”

And the initials P.E.O.?

“The secret is out,” Bailey said. “It's Philanthropic Educational Organization.”

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