2013-03-29 / Community

PEO backs education for women; members sought

By Molly Lovell-Keely
Managing Editor

SOUTH PORTLAND –Ten years ago, P.E.O. was something its members didn’t talk about.

Now, however, the Philanthropic Educational Organization, a sisterhood more than 140 years old, is more open about the ways in which it helps women pursue an education.

PEO Chapter E out of Kennebunk was formed in 1979 and has more than members.

PEO has chapters throughout the U.S. and Canada. It was formed by a group of college friends to give their fellow women a step up in the world of education, which, at the time, was dominated by men. One has to be invited to join, after which an initiation ceremony is performed that dates back to the organization’s founding more than 100 years ago.

“I wasn’t much of a joiner, but the philanthropies appealed to me,” said Kennebunk resident Debbi Lord, who has been a member for 10 years.

The organization’s six philanthropies, or projects, include the Educational Loan Fund, which makes loans available to women who want to pursue higher education and are in need of financial assistance. An applicant must be recommended by a PEO chapter and be within two years of completing her course of study. The interest rate on the loan is 3 percent.

The international Peace Scholarship allows women from abroad to pursue graduate study in Canada or the U.S.

The PEO Program for Continuing Education provides needs-based grants for women whose education was interrupted and find it necessary to return to school to support themselves and their families.

The organization’s Scholar Awards provide merit-based awards for women who are pursuing a doctoral degree while the STAR Scholarship provides $2,500 to high school seniors who are going on to college.

Cottey College in Nevada, Mo., is a women’s institution that provides two- and four-year degrees and has been owned by the PEO Sisterhood since 1927.

Lord said a member of the group recently summed up PEO’s ability to give, better than she’s heard it phrased:

“When we give, we give little bits – not great big sums, but every little bit makes a difference,” she said, adding that regular fundraisers collect money for the philanthropies.

Combined, more than a quarter million PEOs throughout the country and Canada give hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

Kennebunkport resident Priscilla Campbell-Wyman has been a member for several years and said there are women in every community or neighborhood who could benefit from or be part of PEO.

She thought back to a woman in her husband’s dental practice whose daughter became pregnant in college.

“Her moral code would not allow her to have an abortion, so she raised this little girl with no father and not much support,” Campbell-Wyman said.

The woman’s daughter did graduate from college.

“For 20-something years she had been told that she did something wrong – having a child out of wedlock. She never wanted to ask for help. This is someone we could have given a chapter grant to. It’s that close – sometimes you don’t even think about it,” she added.

The aid that P.E.O. provides, Campbell- Wyman said, is shockingly easy to obtain.

“It can be as easy as writing a letter,” she said.

Socially, PEO adds much to the lives of the women who are invited to join, Campbell- Wyman said.

“We’re all familiar with big organizations like Rotary, but I always felt that they were business-fueled. We’re personally fueled. Our jobs don’t say that we have to be involved in this group. It’s very personal,” she said.

While the group is aging, Lord said members offer life experience and a good sense of humor and understanding.

Lord and Campbell-Wyman even said it’s like having a whole group of grandmothers all under one roof.

“I like that role,” Lord said with a smile.

Members also have diverse backgrounds.

Chapter E recently enjoyed a presentation from member Jean Moulton, a member of the volunteer firefighting force in Kennebunkport. She was given an award for her service in 2011, when two men died in a sewage holding tank at the Lodge at Turbats Creek.

“I saw Jean on the road in her uniform that day,” said Campbell-Wyman, who appreciated seeing a different side of one of her sisters.

Members of the sisterhood, which can also be described as a sorority, repeat an ode at every meeting that is sort of a guideline for how members should live.

“There was a time though, when we had some members who would say disparaging things or would be short,” Campbell-Wyman said.

“One member left because of that and she’s just come back to the group. She’s very pleased now,” Lord added.

Meetings are held once a month, when a program is presented on an annual theme. The upcoming year’s theme is “staying connected.”

Members often talk about mission trips they have taken or family traditions that have had an impact on their lives.

Lord’s husband, Bill, was vice president of news at ABC, and has presented programs to his wife’s chapter.

Lord said it may at first feel funny for new members to refer to one another as “sisters.”

“It’s a nice concept, though,” she said.

In fact, Campbell-Wyman, who never had a sister, felt she finally found her spiritual sister when she joined P.E.O.

Lord and Campbell-Wyman said they can’t think of any woman who wouldn’t be a good fit for PEO, adding that women with daughters often like to join because they feel it makes them good role models.

“I couldn’t go around the room and tell you who did what for a living, or what kind of education they have had,” Lord said. “Everyone is educated in their own way and brings something unique to the group.”

As is the case in most sororities, there are special things that only members can know about PEO, details that have been protected since the group was formed in 1869.

“We protect certain details, but we very much want the community to know what we’re about. I don’t know why it was so secretive for many years – it had just always been that way,” Campbell-Wyman said.

Some members of Chapter E have been involved for as long as 50 years – a special commitment, Lord said.

“There’s something really deep there about PEO,” Lord said. “That is admired.”

To learn more about PEO, visit www.peointernational.org or email peochaptere@hotmail.com or call 632-7475.

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