Reaching for the Stars

  • By:  Beth Cothron

Two years ago, a long-time and long-distance friend called me out of the blue. We caught up on each other’s lives. Then she said, “I’d like to recommend you for membership to a women’s organization I’m in. It’s P.E.O.”

“What is P.E.O.?,” I asked. Her answer seemed very cryptic: “Oh, you’ll see. You’ll like them, and you’ll be a great P.E.O.”

Within a few weeks, I received invitations to socialize with local P.E.O.s. in different chapters. Even for an extrovert like me, walking into a room of strangers I didn’t know much about was a bit stressful. But the stress melted away immediately because of their caring and warmth.

Later, when I became a P.E.O., I learned the secret of this sisterhood and their noble mission—the secret of P.E.O.

P.E.O. has always been referred to as “P.E.O.” – with no definition of its letters and always using the periods. The secret organization was only known to its members. But in 2005, P.E.O. broke the silence with its initiative: It’s Okay to Talk about P.E.O. Then in 2008, the Sisterhood revealed that it is a “Philanthropic Educational Organization.” Coincidentally around that time, the TV game show Jeopardy revealed the same thing!

What began as a secret society of young women at an Iowa college nearly 150 years ago is now a sisterhood a quarter of a million strong. The first chapter came to Virginia in 1927, and now in Hampton Roads alone, there are 18 chapters. Three thousand dedicated Virginia women fulfill the mission of making higher education possible for other women. Virginia P.E.O. is led by Sherry Arendt of Virginia Beach. Let’s meet Sherry and a few other local P.E.O. sisters who are helping other women reach for the stars.

Virginia Chapter President Sherry Arendt spent the last four years on the Virginia state board in training for this year. Actually, her entire 15 years of experience as a P.E.O. member have helped prepare her for this role.

Originally from Iowa, she made her way to Virginia Beach via her husband’s naval career. The area won her over. She has the sea in her veins – and in her back yard.

“I look out my condo window at the beach, and I am amazed at how much it reminds me of P.E.O.—a constant, yet ever-changing presence in my life,” said Sherry in her president’s message. Her theme for this year is: Catch the Waves to Better Futures.

“Every day at the beach is different,” she observed. “Some days the waves are calm and gently rolling. Other days the waves are strong and full of energy. But all of them together make for a very powerful force, just as together in P.E.O., we are a powerful force. We even own a college!”

Since 1927, P.E.O. has owned and operated Cottey College in Missouri. Cottey is part of the mission of the organization: funding higher education for women. Cottey and other programs—called Projects—provide hundreds of millions of dollars in scholarships, loans and grants.

“I know from personal experience how hard it is to finance going to school,” Sherry said. “If only P.E.O. had been more public in their mission at that time, I might have been able to get help from my hometown chapter, which I did not know existed.”

P.E.O.’s philanthropic mission convinced Sherry to become a P.E.O. She was recommended for membership by a childhood friend.

Sherry said she treasures what P.E.O. offers—an instant support system that stems from a common bond promising acceptance and sisterhood. “P.E.O.s are committed and have a loving concern for each other,” she said. “If your college kid is in the hospital at a school, call a P.E.O. and ask her to visit. A P.E.O. will do it!”

Kat Padua Adkins of Norfolk received a P.E.O. grant to finish her master’s degree.  She didn’t know much about P.E.O. at the time. It was the mother of her then boyfriend/now husband—a P.E.O.—who suggested she apply. She got her Masters of Fine Arts degree in computer art and launched a successful career as a visual artist and animator.

Then her husband’s job brought them to Norfolk, and Kat became a P.E.O. “It was my mother-in-law again,” she said, laughing, about how she became part of the organization that helped her. But the drive to her mother-in-law’s Williamsburg chapter became too far to go on a work night. She loved her Williamsburg sisters, but began to look for a Southside group. “I felt a certain connection immediately,” she said about her new Southside chapter.

Now she has more time for P.E.O. and her job at the Governors School for the Arts (GSA) in Norfolk. She stresses the importance of teaching art and keeping up with technology, especially for children, because technology moves so quickly. “Being ready to change with technology opens up what you can do,” said Kat.

She is passionate about helping others. “It’s the mentorship that I really enjoy,” she said about helping the GSA students. “It’s so rewarding. Each student I’ve mentored has gotten into the program of their choice.”

She also mentors in P.E.O. Kat helps her chapter select candidates for the P.E.O. Projects. She helps further by being a mentor for the women whether or not they receive assistance. “All the candidates are amazing,” she said. Her chapter’s candidate was recently selected for a scholarship.

Kat’s passion for helping people shows in everything she does. Her motto is “Never give anyone a reason to say no to you.” Her website is full of positive vibes and tells of her focus on creating high quality entertainment for children.

And she has taken on a new personal project—writing a children’s book—while she’s nesting in preparation for her and her husband’s first child.

Given its prior secrecy, it’s not surprising that P.E.O. membership can run in families. When Jennifer Culver of Norfolk became a military spouse, her mother told her she needed to be a P.E.O.

“I remember them (P.E.O.s) as being this warm group of women,” she recalled about her childhood and her mother’s chapter. “My dad and I stayed upstairs when my mom would have a meeting. I knew about getting into a meeting only if you were a P.E.O.”

When her Navy husband was sent to Diego Garcia for a year unaccompanied, Jennifer decided that she and her three-month-old baby would spend time with her parents in North Carolina. Living far from a Navy community, Jennifer missed the Navy support system, but P.E.O. filled in perfectly.

Right about the time Jennifer moved in with her folks, her mother’s P.E.O. chapter decided it had gotten too big and would branch off a new chapter. “It was super exciting,” she said about being a new P.E.O. in a new chapter. “We meet in people’s homes, and when a chapter gets too big, you can’t meet in someone’s living room anymore.” She treasures meeting in sisters’ homes rather than meeting rooms. “You get that home-y love feeling.” It was just what Jennifer needed. “I had my mom and my P.E.O. sisters for my new-mom support.”

Through the years, Jennifer’s military moves have sent her to many different locations. But finding the right chapter isn’t hard to do, she said. When she got to Norfolk, she found the right fit at the very first chapter she visited.

“When you walk in somewhere and say you’re a PEO, it’s instant family,” she said. “They will drop everything for you, even welcome you into their home if you need a place to stay.”

That’s P.E.O. according to Jennifer. “With PEO, I have a support system like no other.”

Sara Walters of Virginia Beach grew up in a military family and also served. After visiting the Naval Academy when she was young, she knew it was for her.

She graduated in 2003, and four weeks after graduation, she was on a ship. Being a surface warfare officer was a good career choice for her, but it wasn’t her passion. “I knew I wanted to be a nurse even before I graduated,” Sara explained. So, she served her commitment, entered the reserves, and started her nursing degree.

A while later, her husband decided it was time to leave the Navy and pursue his master’s degree. So, they settled down and began life as civilians.

The timing was right to think about following in her mother’s footsteps as a P.E.O. But it wasn’t her mom that recommended her for membership; it was her mother’s friend. Sara joined P.E.O. and started making her own great memories.

Then her husband signed up for the Naval reserves. It didn’t take long for him to be called up to active duty and sent to Hampton Roads. The friend that recommended her for membership started calling P.E.O. chapters in Norfolk to tell them that Sara was moving to their area. So, finding a new chapter to join was easy.

Although being back in the military offers help and support like spouses’ groups and more, Sara said she devotes her time to P.E.O. “It’s nice to have something that’s all yours,” she said of the sisterhood, “and not something centered on your husband’s job.”

A member of P.E.O. for barely two years, Sara said the more she learns about P.E.O., the more impressed she is with the organization. “It’s all about friendship and the betterment of society,” she said.

“Women that I already hold in great esteem have turned out to be P.E.O.s,” said Sara. “I was talking to this dear friend of mine who is like a mother to me, and I told her about this organization I joined. You know what she said? She is a P.E.O.!”

Now that you know more about P.E.O., you might start noticing their letters and daisy stickers in car windows or on tote bags. At your high school’s senior awards ceremony, P.E.O.s might present a scholarship. The sisterhood is everywhere. Matter of fact, so many of my friends have turned out to be P.E.O.s that my husband thinks it might be a conspiracy. His actual words were, “I think P.E.O.s run the world.”

Hmmm. Well? There are still a few things about P.E.O. that are secret. Wink, wink!

If you would like more information about P.E.O. or know someone who could benefit from its Projects, ask a P.E.O. or search:



Beth Cothron is a proud Navy wife and mother of two sons. She used to be a Tidewater woman but now lives in Northern Virginia. She loved meeting new P.E.O. sisters through this article. 

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