A display of stars with the photographs of the seven founders of the P.E.O. Sisterhood. The stars represent the P.E.O.’s motto and mission, “Women Helping Women Reach for the Stars.” (Richard Walker/Kitsap News Group)

Local P.E.O. chapter celebrates 100 years

Organization helps women ‘reach for the stars’

SILVERDALE — For nearly 149 years, a long succession of sisters have kept the secret.

Sure, you and I know the P.E.O. as the Philanthropic Educational Organization, but P.E.O. is actually an abbreviation for something else. The organization really is about philanthropy and education — in fact, they were helping women accomplish their educational goals for 52 years before Soroptimist International was founded for that same purpose. But P.E.O. … what do those initials really mean? Well, that’s for them to know and for you to find out.

And good luck finding it out.

I thought I cracked the code during a visit Oct. 19 with three members of the local chapter — Darlene Olmsted, Fran Valley and Ione Visick — in Silverdale. The three were busy planning the chapter’s centennial to be celebrated at 1 p.m. Nov. 18 at Summit Avenue Presbyterian Church in Bremerton.

They had objects from the chapter’s 100 years displayed on the table, including seven stars with photos of the seven young women who founded P.E.O. as a sorority on Jan. 21, 1869 while they were students at Iowa Wesleyan College in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.

One of the photos was of Suela Pearson. Hmm, a “P.” Then I saw a photo of Franc Elliott. Ah, ha! “P.E.” But the “O” … let’s see, Allen, Briggs, Bird, Coffin, Stewart. No “O.”

I’d have better luck shooting a game of “H.O.R.S.E.”

Olmsted laughed as if to say, look, this isn’t the Da Vinci Code, pal. Here’s what we’re really about.

First and foremost, they’re about helping women “Reach for the Stars” — that’s P.E.O.’s motto. This smallish chapter of 22 members ages 63-90 raises about $12,000 a year for six P.E.O. philanthropies. That money, combined with money raised by 10 other chapters in Kitsap and hundreds of chapters in the United States and Canada, fund Cottey College, which is wholly owned by P.E.O.; an Educational Loan Fund, for women pursuing higher education; the International Peace Scholarship, for international women students pursuing graduate study in the United States and Canada; the Program for Continuing Education, which provides need-based grants to women who are returning to school to support themselves and/or their families; the Scholar Awards, which provides merit-based awards for women pursuing doctoral-level degrees; and the STAR Scholarship for college-bound high school senior women.

According to P.E.O., the organization has awarded more than $304 million to more than 102,000 women, and some 8,500 women have graduated from Cottey College in Missouri.

Of her chapter’s part in that, Olmsted said, “It’s quite empowering.”

And behind the philanthropy, there’s a lot of love.

When you’re a member, you’re family, Visick said. When women ask her about P.E.O., she tells them about the camaraderie, how members care for each other. “I wasn’t able to stay involved when my husband was ill, but they stayed in touch with me and checked on me,” said Visick, a retired teacher.

Olmsted added, “They’re there for you. You become like sisters. That’s what we’re all about — camaraderie and supporting women through education.

Valley joined in 2008. “I love getting involved. I’ve gotten to know members from other chapters and they’re all lovely people.” When women ask her about P.E.O., “I emphasize the good that P.E.O. does, helping women reach for the stars, and how much fun it is to be in a group together.”

They do have fun. They meet once a month, and to raise money they’ve produced and sold notecards, cookbooks and tote bags; hosted bunco parties (male significant others not allowed); and taken over the Applebee’s Restaurant in Silverdale.

“Everything from soup to nuts,” Olmsted quipped.

To join P.E.O., you have to be 18 (the new generation of P.E.O. leaders in the U.S. include Katie Herman, 29, a chapter president in New York City; and Katy Reif, 31, a member of the P.E.O. executive board in Oregon).

And you have to be invited. That’s it. (It helps to have a sense of humor.) Benefits of membership: You get an extended family. You get to help women achieve their dreams. And you get to know what P.E.O. really stands for.

For more information, or to get an invite to the 100th anniversary celebration of this P.E.O. chapter, email Valley at fvalley@msn.com or Nancy Magisos at nmagisos@olypen.com.

— Richard Walker is managing editor of Kitsap News Group. Contact him at rwalker@soundpublishing.com.

Items from the P.E.O. chapter archives that will be on display at the chapter’s centennial celebration on Nov. 18. (Richard Walker/Kitsap News Group)

P.E.O. chapter president Fran Valley takes a photograph of a reporter taking her picture, drawing a laugh from Darlene Olmsted. (Richard Walker/Kitsap News Group)

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