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Pine Bluff small business owner making a difference for her community

Dr. Valandra Oliver is a full-time associate professor at the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff by day and the owner of Bella Cleaning Services by night.

PINE BLUFF, Ark. — One special community member in the southeastern part of the state is not only impacting her employees with her small business, but also the city she calls home. 

Dr. Valandra Oliver isn't your typical faculty member at the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff. 

"That's my day-time, full-time job and in the evening, I'm Bella," she said. 

Oliver is referring to her independently-owned cleaning service, known as Bella Cleaning Services, LLC, which was just an idea five years ago and finally became a reality in September of 2017. 

"I think that year we probably made about $1,000, but I was so excited and my first employees were my husband and, of course, my boneless daughter," she said. 

Some might call it a family business. Oliver started cleaning houses at a young age with her great-grandmother and grandmother. 

"I was working with my grandmother in a local doctor's office down in Crossett, and so a doctor, he just remarked to my grandmother. He was like, 'oh you're training her so she will be able to take your place one day.' So, my grandmother, she's a woman of few words, but I could tell that she was really upset by his comment," she said. 

Oliver's grandmother turned that frustration into inspiration, challenging her granddaughter to one day aim high in life. 

Well, Oliver did just that by receiving her doctorate in Public Health while still holding true to her roots.

"Being a small business owner, profit is important, but people are the most important thing," she said. 

Oliver said investing in people, her employees specifically, is a key ingredient in how she runs her business. 

Chelsey Donnell is one of Bella Cleaning Services' 10 employees. 

"It's more like a family. She really does care, she looks out for us. I wouldn't trade her for anything," she said. 

Donnell started working there at the end of May, after her and her husband made the move from Searcy to Pine Bluff. 

"I was just trying to be a little more independent in my marriage. My husband and I had just gotten married," she said. 

What Donnell thought was just going to be another job, clocking in and out, cleaning houses, turned out to be her saving grace.

"I didn't feel like I really had a whole lot of purpose," she said. 

Before meeting Oliver, Donnell was battling internally. Now, everything is different. 

"I feel more confident, I just feel like I've changed totally," she said. 

Donnell said Oliver doesn't just teach her employees cleaning skills, but also life skills. 

"She's a really good role model when it comes to stuff like that," she said. 

On the surface, Bella's is run just like any other cleaning service. It has 40 yearly contracts, travels all over the state, and cleans everything from offices, to schools, to retail buildings. 

If you go a little deeper though, Oliver said there is one unique quality that makes this small business completely different from the rest. 

"The living wage is what someone actually needs to be able to live and thrive in a community," she said. 

From day one, Oliver has paid her employees at least $12.50 an hour and over time, they can make up to $20 an hour. 

"We don't just get by anymore," Donnell said. 

At the end of the day, Donnell said Oliver is giving her employees much more than extra zeros on their paychecks. 

"I got a whole other family out of it," she said. 

Oliver said that aspect of genuine love and care is what she wants everyone to learn from her story. 

"You can do it and you can really help people turn their lives around. It doesn't take--it's not a multi-million-dollar operation here. You can do small things to make a big impact," she said. 

Bella Cleaning Services added something to lend an extra hand to their employees in October. Oliver now gives them the ability to sign up for benefits. 

She said anything from medical insurance to life insurance is now available for them. 

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