DES MOINES — An organization started 150 years ago by seven young women in southeast Iowa is holding its international convention in Des Moines this week.

“We are one of the largest non-profit organizations for women in all of North America,” said Elizabeth Garrels of Mount Pleasant, who has been a PEO member since she was 18 years old.

The PEO Sisterhood has more than half a million members in the U.S. and Canada. Garrels, who served as international president of PEO in 2011, said about 6000 “PEOs” from all 50 states and 10 Canadian provinces are in Des Moines for the convention.

Garrels said local P-E-O chapters provide a support system for members and the group’s fundraising provides scholarships, grants and loans to women seeking a college degree.

“We also own and support Cottey College, a baccalaureate-degree-granting college in Nevada, Missouri, for women,” Garrels said.

Since 1907, PEO has raised nearly $345 million to help more than 109,000 women go to college.

“I just think that’s an incredible statistic,” Garrels said. “The power of women to assist each other.”

Hundreds of the PEO convention delegates have signed up for a day trip to visit the Iowa Wesleyan campus where PEO started.

“To see PEO’s hometown, Mount Pleasant, Iowa. We’re rolling out the red carpet and are so excited,” Garrels said. “I think there are 13 busloads of people, over 700 folks that will be making the trek down to southeast Iowa from Des Moines to enjoy walking in the footprints of our founders.”

The bus tours of Mount Pleasant began Wednesday and the final tour is scheduled for Sunday, the day after the convention concludes. PEO’s international headquarters is located in Des Moines, about 14 blocks west of the governor’s mansion — but the convention is being held at a convention center in downtown Des Moines.