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The biggest organization no one has heard of

 

John Davis, left, talks with Laurie Chilcutt, president of the Mississippi Chapter of Philanthropic Educational Organization, after she spoke to Columbus Rotarians at Lion Hills Center Tuesday afternoon.

John Davis, left, talks with Laurie Chilcutt, president of the Mississippi Chapter of Philanthropic Educational Organization, after she spoke to Columbus Rotarians at Lion Hills Center Tuesday afternoon. Photo by: Deanna Robinson/Dispatch Staff

 

Slim Smith

 

 

Since its founding almost 150 years ago, the Philanthropic Educational Organization (PEO) has grown, with 20,000 members in 700 chapters throughout the U.S. and Canada, raising more than $300 million in grants, scholarships and loans, mostly through small fundraising such as bake sales. 

 

It is, quite possibly, the biggest organization no one has ever heard of, Laurie Chilcutt told the Columbus Rotary Club Tuesday at Lion Hills Center. 

 

"Up until the 1990s, it was almost like a secret society," said Chilcutt, the president of the Mississippi Chapter of PEO. "It's really grown by word of mouth. When I became a member, some friends were members and my mother-in-law was a member. They all said, 'We're in this great organization and would love for you to be a part of it.'" 

 

The PEO's mission is to support women through education. 

 

"It's an organization of women, by women and for women," Chilcutt said. "When it was founded by a group of students at Iowa Wesleyan College, the women modeled it after the Greek organizations of the time, but wanted the main focus to be on helping women." 

 

Think of PEO as a sorority with no 8 a.m. classes. 

 

"It includes women of all ages, all walks of life," Chilcutt said. "It's a sisterhood, but it goes beyond that. It's pretty amazing what all these small chapters do, mostly through small fundraisers. Three-hundred-million dollars in nothing to sneeze at." 

 

There are currently 25 PEO chapters in Mississippi, including two in Columbus and one in Starkville. 

 

Chilcutt's daughter is Columbus Rotary vice-president Ann Marie Chilcutt. In fact, she started a chapter of her own in Columbus. 

 

"For me, it's a lot like Rotary," Ann Marie said. "You have the camaraderie, but you also are part of an organization that is doing things for people. When I started the new chapter, the idea was to have a chapter for younger women. We meet at night and we may have a glass of wine instead of meeting in the morning over coffee like my mom's chapter. But the goal is the same, to promote women and their education."

 

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]

 

 

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