The Philanthropic Education Organization doesn’t have a glitzy, glamorous name.
The P.E.O. Sisterhood, one of the oldest women’s organizations in North America, is alive and well right here on Palos Verdes Peninsula. It recently observed its 150th anniversary of advancing higher education for women through scholarships, grants and loans.
But, rest assured its 300,000 members worldwide are more concerned with supporting women working toward college degrees than being able to apply false eyelashes or have the most friends on Facebook.
The South Bay hails sisterhood chapters from the Palos Verdes Peninsula, San Pedro, Hermosa Beach and Torrance, but there are about 6,000 total throughout the United States.
Women invited into the P.E.O. take a serious, ceremonial vow “to do all they can, at all times and under all circumstances to express a loving concern for each member and those being sponsored.”
Sisterhoods, like the 100-year-old “H” chapter that originated in Hermosa Beach and San Pedro’s “GI” chapter, are represented by letters of the alphabet. The closer to the letter “A” the older the chapter.
President Pam Turba of the GI group said there are about a half dozen chapters ranging in various sizes on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
“We gave ourselves a name—“Gracious Individuals,” Turba said to plump up the GI acronym. “This chapter with about 40 members, has been in perpetual existence for about 90 years.”
Meetings are held once a month in someone’s home. They are private, members only affairs.
Historical documentation of the club has it that in 1869 seven close friends were going to Iowa Wesleyan University together, and a few of them were invited to join a particular sorority while a few weren't. None would join without the others, so they started their own the sorority.
What began as a purposely-low profile collegiate organization blossomed throughout the United States.
In 2005, the Sisterhood introduced a campaign to clear up some of the furtiveness surrounding the club, allowing members to wear their star-shaped emblem pins in public and raise awareness about the organization.
Some members, like Charla Martinez said she’s seen a lot of changes throughout her 42-year membership, such as more women entering the workforce, modernization of the group’s activities and relaxing some of the P.E.O.’s traditions of secrecy.
Turba said outside donations toward P.E.O.’s scholarships and awards are not solicited but fundraising remains an inside creative endeavor.
For instance, a P.E.O. chapter might eke out a night at the Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach where all members pay for the show, but all proceeds for the night go toward support for the organization’s scholarship and education awards.
In addition to educational assistance, the group also supports what they dub as “their very own college.”
Cottey College, established in 1884, is a debt-free institution in Nevada, Missouri. It’s a nationally ranked, fully accredited liberal arts/science college for women, and has been supported by P.E.O. since 1927.
“There’s a lot of competition to get the scholarships,” Martinez said, referring to the six philanthropic projects the P.E.O. supports. “We give out various kinds of scholarships and help with student loans.”
Included are such awards as the Educational Loan Fund, established in 1907, that lends money to qualified women to assist in securing a higher education. To date the organization has loaned $195.4 million to deserving women.
Or, the STAR scholarships awarded to exceptional high school seniors to attend accredited educational institutions in the U.S. and Canada can be as high as $5,000 from local chapters alone.
Other scholarships for women pursuing doctorates and medical careers also have realized millions of dollars raised by P.E.O. members among themselves.
Every three months the South Bay P.E.O. councils come together to share fundraising ideas, share in prayers, discuss potential scholarship recipients and generally socialize and promote the sisterhood spirit.
“I’ve been with this group since 2003,” said Nancy McTavish who is part of the GI chapter. “I came in when a friend invited me. It’s been a broadening of friendship and intellectual stimulation.”
For information on scholarships, visit peointernational.org.