Melissa Clark, who prefers to be called Lissie, is a fighter, a survivor. Her business story is a tribute to her fortitude. Lissie struggles to lead a normal life, but she has excelled, despite being told as a child that she wouldn’t be able to learn. Her parents were alcoholics, and Lissie was born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), one of the first in Montana to be so diagnosed over 30 years ago.
Today Lissie runs her own business, making gourmet dog biscuits which she sells at the Farmers Market in Great Falls, Montana and through phone and email orders.
Lissie is Assiniboine, from the Fort Belknap reservation, although she has never lived on the reservation. She was in and out of hospitals, foster homes and one adoptive home for a short while and doesn’t remember ever meeting her father and only remembers meeting her mother once when her mother was 50. She wishes she had been raised on the reservation but says, “Unfortunately that just didn’t work out.” Speaking of her parents she added, “I’m very proud of them but they just weren’t able to raise me in Havre where we lived at the time.”
She was more recently invited to speak at a conference on the reservation where they held a naming ceremony for her and her courageousness in discussing her disability.
Lissie completed twelve years of special education and then two more years at a vocational education school called Secondary Life Skills. She was just short of 6 years old when she met Sister Johnelle, a Catholic nun who was to become her “permanent foster” mom, a woman she lives and works with and refers to as “mom.”
Sister Johnelle tells of planning to adopt Lissie but was told by a case worker to wait till Lissie was through puberty. Many behaviors of FAS can emerge at that time. “Was that a ride!” Sister Johnelle laughs.
Lissie is comfortable talking about FAS, explaining that it’s caused by the mother drinking alcohol during pregnancy. “It depends on how much the mother has drunk and when it happens,” she explained
“Every FAS person is different. It affects them in every aspect of their life,” Sister Johnelle added. “It’s permanent brain damage. We try to retrain the brain function so Lissie can do certain things.”
Lizzie explained further. “It’s not the same every day. My functioning level can be way up one day and way down the next. We don’t know if we can do the same tasks every day.
She certainly doesn’t lack intelligence and her vocabulary is very good, but FAS impacts her life in many ways.
She tried to work a nine to five type job. “She tried so hard,” Sister Johnelle said, but it just didn’t work. At that point they started brainstorming ideas on what she might do. “I was a dog lover,” Lissie said. She started out walking dogs and thought about starting a dog grooming business or doggie hotel but found the cost of insurance was simply overwhelming. “I decided I’d cut it down to just doing the biscuits.”
Lissie’s Luv Yums Gourmet Dog Treats was born in 1999 and she’s still in business. They got a grant from the Montana Rural Institute and the Montana Jobs Training Partnership Act which is for persons with disabilities, “and from there it’s history,” Sister Johnelle said.
These little dog biscuits are entirely made by hand in the kitchen of their home in Great Falls. They use wheat exclusively from Wheat Montana, wheat berries which they grind, soy which they also grind, corn meal, molasses, powdered milk, beef bouillon, and a little beet juice to paint the heart on each biscuit. It’s very labor intensive. Lissie is equally concerned about packaging and each biscuit is carefully placed in cellophane packages. Then it’s off to the market or to fill a special order. They can be contacted at (406) 453-2531 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Each package also contains the message that FAS is 100% preventable and a request from Lissie, “I beg you, if you’re pregnant, please don’t drink.”