In Iowa in 1869, seven women had an idea that, at that time, was somewhat unusual. They founded the Philanthropic Educational Organization (PEO) as a supportive sisterhood with the mission of promoting education among women.
Since that time, the organization has expanded both nationally and internationally, with numerous scholarship, loan and assistance programs related to education for women. PEO has given $221.5 million in financial assistance to nearly 88,000 recipients throughout its lifetime and it doesn't look to be slowing any time soon.
There are 6,000 separate PEO chapters throughout the United States and Canada - 240 in Colorado alone - adding up to nearly a quarter of a million members. It's no surprise, then, that PEO women can be found in Summit County, working behind the scenes to further the organization's supportive educational goals.
Summit County is host to two PEO chapters, one in Dillon and one in Breckenridge. The Breck chapter has been active in the county since its founding in 1969 and includes approximately 80 members today. Dillon's chapter began in 1989 and currently has roughly 55 members.
While both are chapters of PEO, they have slightly different areas of focus. The Breckenridge chapter emphasizes supporting young women, particularly those enrolled in or just about to graduate from high school. In addition to sponsoring young women for organizational grants and loans, the chapter offers local scholarships to help with paying for continued education.
The Dillon chapter's focus tends to be on women who are continuing their education, either after a break in schooling or into higher educational programs. Both chapters host their own fundraising events throughout the year, such as flower sales in June and November and calendar sales. Proceeds from these events go to the national organization as well as to fund local scholarships.
Erin Sain was one such recipient. After graduating from Summit High School in 2002, for two consecutive years she received a $500 scholarship from PEO. She graduated from the University of Colorado, Boulder, with a degree in biology, then went on to pursue her dentistry degree at the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine in Denver. At that time, she received assistance from the PEO Educational Loan Fund (ELF).
"It was very nice to have that scholarship and not have to take out additional loans that were higher interest," Sain said.
The money, which helped with paying for books and classes, was much appreciated.
After graduating from dentistry school, it didn't take long before Sain returned to Summit County. She worked for the Summit Community Care Clinic and now is celebrating her first year of owning her own practice - Backcountry Family Dental in Silverthorne.
Sain has come even more full circle, as she is now a member of the Dillon PEO chapter.
"I think it's a great mission and once I got settled back in Summit County, I've since joined the organization," Sain said. "I'm helping to raise money for scholarships for girls at the high school and college level, just because I had that opportunity to get those scholarships as well, so, it's been nice being a part of that."
Sain was not the only benefactor of her scholarship, however. The members of the PEO chapter who helped her are pleased with her success.
"It is very rewarding," said Dillon chapter vice president Carol Goodwin, of working to provide scholarships for local women. "Some of the women who have received benefits from our fundraising efforts may not have been able to complete their goals in a timely manner. It may have taken them years longer or cost them a lot more in student loans, so it's very rewarding to see the benefits of our programs and the way it's helped them."
It's all about finding the balance between the support of the national organization and the familiar face of the local chapters, said Dillon chapter president Patty Fry.
"We're giving it to you; they're heartfelt dollars," she said. "They're people that we know."
One of the main cornerstones of the PEO organization is sisterhood, promoting a sense of support and fellowship among its members within individual chapters and throughout the organization.
Up until recently, PEO has kept a low profile, despite the international reach of the organization. Women worked quietly behind the scenes to fulfill their passion to supporting the educational advancement of other women.
"In the past it's been viewed as sort of a secret society, a secret organization, but we're really tying to get the word out now," Goodwin said. "It's not secret, it is an organization that really is striving to become well-known and support local women."
There are two sides to the PEO, said Fry. One is the public side, which, striving to become more vocal, puts forth the PEO mission of providing scholarships and loans and promotion of women's education.
The second key aspect of PEO is found within. Not only do the chapter members support women in the community, but they support their own members as well.
"It was formed as a sisterhood and so we truly believe that we also are a support for each other," Fry said. "Our fundraising is part of what we do, and it's how we support the org, but we also believe in being that support for all the other members of our chapter. We believe that we are sisters. It's a sisterhood and we're there for each other, in times of celebration, in times of sorrow . . . We're there for each other always."
Membership in the PEO must be offered by a participating member, but once it is, it's a designation for life. It is often passed down from mothers to daughters, or mothers to daughters-in-law, as is the case with Fry, or even friend to friend. No matter how one becomes a member, it sticks, even across state lines.
"The women in the chapter are all outstanding women and I'd say all very positive personalities," said Breckenridge chapter president Betsy Dobbs. "They're very willing to work together and very caring about each other, which is a nice group to be with."
The PEO has come a long way since its original seven members in 1869. Its programs stretch across the country, with international reach as well. As the voice of the PEO rises, so will its supportive membership.
"I have two daughters that I was very determined would be independent women and certainly feel like that that is a very important part of women's lives," Dobbs said. "I think that if the women are educated, then the world is a better place, both educationally and economically."