Bags of Lissie’s Luv Yums dog biscuits are packed with inspiring messages. One is the label advising that “If you are pregnant, please don’t drink” — a warning against the in utero damage called fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS).
The other message is that individuals with FAS and other developmental disabilities can and should be encouraged and enabled to live full lives. For instance, people like Melissa “Lissie” Clark, 36, of Great Falls, Mont., who was born with FAS and is the owner of Lissie’s Luv Yums.
“This business has opened doors for me in so many different ways,” she told Our Sunday Visitor. “I had to start thinking outside the box. Being the CEO and being able to write checks and balance the checkbook and transfer funds has really helped me to grow.”
Those confident words come from an articulate woman who at age 6 was called “uneducable.” That’s what people from an agency told Sister Johnelle Howanach of the Congregation of the Humility of Mary of Davenport, Iowa. But she saw a curiosity and brightness in the Native American girl from the Gros Ventre Assiniboine heritage. So, she took her in as a foster child.
|Melissa Clark (left) and Sister Johnelle Howanach. Courtesy photo
“I never thought I’d be raising a child,” Sister Johnelle told OSV. “It was a big shock to me. But the Holy Spirit has been in the whole project, just pulling me along and saying that this is the way I go.”
Clark is a national speaker who promotes awareness of the dangers to an unborn child exposed to alcohol. She also advocates for people with disabilities and has won several awards for her support. One of the points that she and her mom make at speaking engagements is that people with disabilities can create their own job opportunities.
“I think self-employment for people with disabilities is one of the best-kept secrets,” Sister Johnelle said. “I’ll never forget when Lissie said, ‘I’m a tax-paying citizen’ and was glad to pay her taxes.”
Choosing a business venture was easy. Clark loves dogs and was a companion to Tiger Lily, her Lab/Akita mix who died four years ago and who was, she said, the inspiration for her dog-walking service. Lissie’s Luv Yums came later when clients asked to purchase her homebaked dog treats.
“I thought, well there we go, and we got busy planning and got a grant from a Montana jobs training partnership for people with disabilities,” Sister Johnelle said.
For the past 12 years, Clark has been baking, wrapping and packing Lissie’s Luv Yums to sell at local markets and shops, and shipping them around the country. She learned math skills that were once difficult for her, and she learned to plan and set goals. But that’s not the only way that the business enriched her life.
“Little by little, we’re turning more responsibility over to Lissie,” said Sister Johnelle, who is now 78. “And now as problems develop for me, Lissie is right there to help me. She is my blessing, a blessing that I never dreamed of. ”
Feeling God’s presence
Sister Lynn Mousel, M.D., is a child psychiatrist with a Great Falls agency that serves individuals with developmental disabilities. She met Clark and Sister Johnelle in 2003 at an annual gathering in Iowa for the Sisters of Humility (Clark is an associate member of the congregation). She visited them several times in Montana and recently moved into their home.
“I wanted to join their household because it was clear that the three of us share a bond and they are so kind and caring,” she said. “I knew there was a need for someone to support them as Johnelle ages, but it was something that came from my heart, not that I had to join them.”
Sister Johnelle called Sister Lynn’s presence “a godsend” and Clark joked that now she has “someone who can keep up” with her.
“God brought Lissie into my life and God is taking care of us,” Sister Johnelle said. “I think God has big plans for Lissie. All she needed was a chance.”
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania. Visit lissiesluvyums.com for more information.