Women's group celebrates 50 years of good works

August 11, 2003|HERB BROCK

A lot of local service clubs, civic organizations and special-interest groups sponsor projects to help people in some kind of need.

Some provide gifts and food to people with a financial need at Christmastime. Some buy eyeglasses or prostheses or pay the medical bills of people with a physical or medical need. Others contribute to foundations that meet a wide variety of personal and community needs.

The Philanthropic Educational Organization, and PEO and its chapters, including the one in Danville, own and support Cottey Junior College, a fully-accredited liberal arts school for women in Nevada, Mo. The PEO has taken care of the college since 1927.

The PEO's involvement with Cottey is a good example of the philanthropic and educational mission of the organization: "To bring to women increased opportunities for higher education."


The PEO sisterhood has pursued this mission and supported the college and other projects aimed at expanding the educational and, thus, occupational horizons of young women for more than 130 years. In Danville, the local chapter has been part of the PEO mission for 50 years.

The Danville chapter, which is one more than 5,800 in the United States and Canada representing more than 250,000 active members, will celebrate its half-century of good works on Sept. 27 with a special tea. The chapter was founded in September 1953 by Elizabeth Ritchie, the wife of a Centre College faculty member.

The members not only will pay tribute to Ritchie but will tip their hats to others who have contributed to the organization, including 50-year members Jerry Sheehan and Bruce Jaeger, and two former members who went on to serve as presidents of the Kentucky chapter, Carolyn Durham and Wilma Winsor.

The group meets at least 15 times a year. During an extra, informal meeting recently at the Tea Leaf, several officers spoke about their group and what it means to them and what they believe it means to the young women they serve. They come from a variety of backgrounds, from business to education to full-time homemaking.

"We basically exist for the purpose of helping as many women as possible realize educational opportunities," said Allison Walter, chapter corresponding secretary. "And we do this through various projects."

Local chapter contributes to national PEO projects

In addition to owning and supporting the women's junior college in Missouri, the Danville chapter also contributes to other national PEO projects, including the following:

* An educational fund that has provided more than $76 million in loans to more than 38,000 women since 1927. Local chapters sponsor applicants.

* An international scholarship program for women from other countries to study in the U.S. and Canada. The program, whose purpose is to "encourage peace through education and understanding," has provided $15 million in scholarships since 1949 to more than 4,500 women from 152 countries.

* A program for continuing education that provides need-based grants to women in the U.S. and Canada whose educations had been interrupted and who now find it necessary to return to school to support themselves and/or their families. The program has awarded more than $18 million in small grants since 1973 to more than 20,000 women.

* Scholarships for American and Canadian women who are seeking advanced college degrees or who are involved in advanced research projects. Nearly 800 awards worth more than $5 million have been handed out since 1991.

The PEO supports these and other projects mainly through a foundation for tax-deductible gifts from local chapters and individual members.

Rosemary Hamblin, chapter recording secretary, said the success of these projects and those of other organizations, like the American Association of University Women and Business and Professional Women, may be part of the reason some of these groups find it hard to get new members.

"Many women's groups with aims like ours have memberships that are becoming older, and one reason is that a lot of women today are too busy to join," said Hamblin. "They are too involved with careers and educations and taking care of their families."

But the Danville chapter of the PEO has several younger members, thanks to an unofficial legacy system. Several of the members' mothers were members, and several of their daughters have become members.

"My mother was a member, I'm a member and my daughter is a member. We've passed it down the line," said Martha McConnell, chapter chaplain.

The family-like atmosphere underscores what Walter says is an attribute of the organization almost as important as its lofty educational mission: "We are a fellowship of women who meet our own needs, as well as an educational organization that meets the needs of others," she said.

Mary Weber, chapter president, agreed.

"So much of our lives are spent tending to the needs of others, whether it's at work or at home or at church," said Weber. "At our meetings and other activities we share, we are able to be part of a group of women with similar experiences and goals. We are able to be supportive of each other. It's a very enriching experience."

And Weber said she suspects it's a good experience at every chapter.

"When I first joined the PEO, I was in Arizona and I felt the same fellowship I experience here when I was there," she said. "Wherever a PEO members moves, she can usually find a chapter nearby her new home and pick up where she left off. I know that when I joined this chapter, I felt right at home."

For more information about the P.E.O. and its Danville chapter, e-mail Allison Walter at

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