A goal-oriented person, Bettye Oliver likes seeing results from her work. She has had that satisfaction often as state director for community programs with USDA/Rural Development where she administers approximately $70 million each year that funds a variety of projects in the state.
“I like seeing the end product; maybe a community that didn’t have a fire station or clean drinking water or healthcare facilities,” she says. “I like to drive by and think ‘I had a hand in that.’ I want to see that the money is invested wisely.”
A Leap Year baby, Oliver began life as the fourth of nine children born to Charlie and Laura Washington in Vicksburg. Her parents were a great influence on her life, teaching her to do the right thing, work hard and put God first.
“I know I have a job to do, and I ask myself what I can do to help someone today,” she says. “I’ve been blessed with a job through the USDA that enables me to help rural communities in Mississippi.”
Her career began when she worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Vicksburg and later for former Congressman Mike Espy as a field representative. She began the road to service when Espy sent her to help an elderly lady in the Delta find an adequate house.
“Her house was really a shock. There were clothes hanging on the windows to keep out the elements, the floor was almost the ground and she was cooking on a hot plate,” Oliver says. “That really touched my heart seeing a person living like that. I tell my grown children to go with me one time and they will be thankful for what they have.”
She also recalls a time when she was asked to help the Blue Hill Community in Jefferson County get much needed water. “There was a drought, and they were getting water from a stream that was almost dry and hauling water from another community,” she says. “That sparked something in me to help. I worked with Congressman Espy, the Farmers Home Administration and others to bring clean drinking water to that community.”
Oliver began with USDA/Rural Development in 1992 where she worked as a loan specialist, assistant administrator and special assistant before becoming director of community programs, one of three major divisions. In addition to water, sanitary waste systems, fire and health care to rural areas, the program also assists with developing educational and innovative technologies such as wiring for broadband Internet and the establishment of distance learning systems to improve the quality of life for residents.
Examples of this program’s diversity include investments of millions in the SeverCorr project for land acquisition, the King’s Daughters’ Hospital in Brookhaven and the Coastal Family Clinic in Biloxi.
“I know how to access funds. When I see opportunities for economic development, learning and improved healthcare, I try to find a way to help,” Oliver says. “Rural Mississippi has counted on the government to help, but now with a reduction in funds, we will have to come together with the public and private to solve these issues. That’s the challenge that I see.”
If she could change one thing about her work, she says it would be to eliminate some of the paperwork that people have to complete. “I would like to reduce it and still make the loans and grants, but I can’t,” she says.
Oliver, 60, could retire, but plans to work a few more years and will leave a staff trained to carry on the assistance to rural Mississippi when she does leave.
“I thank Congressman Espy for giving me the opportunity to get into public service,” she says. “He encouraged me to do my best, and I haven’t forgotten that.”
Her goal for post-retirement days is to go to ministry school and become a motivational speaker. She enjoys public speaking for different organizations.
Family and church activities take up most of her non-working time, including spending a lot of time working with summer youth programs. She has two sons, Darryl and Sean Washington, and a daughter, Tamara Jerdine, and six grandchildren. Her church, Faith Christian Center in Vicksburg, and pastor, Dr. Ollie Hardaway Jr., along with her family provide a strong support system.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.