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Impact Feature Issue on Employment and Women With Disabilities

Lissie's Luv Yums:
Fighting Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Authors

Melissa Clark

Sr. Johnelle Howanach

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My name is Melissa Clark (Lissie), or my Assiniboine given name, Eya Be Washday Weya (Good Words Woman). I am a Gros Ventre Assiniboine Native American from Ft. Belknap Reservation, and now live in Great Falls, Montana, where I am the proud owner of Lissie's Luv Yums, a gourmet dog biscuit business. I am also an associate member of the Sisters of Humility of Davenport, Iowa.

I was born in Havre, Montana in 1976, and am one of the first diagnosed children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in the state of Montana. My life mission is to educate people about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, give hope to them, and show other people with disabilities that they too can develop their own business. Together with my support person who is also my foster mom, Sister Johnelle Howanach, a Sister of Humility, I share methods and techniques that help me live in my environment and succeed as a person and business owner.

In 1998, when I was finishing Secondary Life Skills, a post-high school class that helps students develop skills to become as independent as possible, my foster mom began looking around the community to see what businesses might work for me. I knew I could not work in the fast food industry, and that I liked animals, and that I wanted to promote awareness of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Only two possibilities seemed worth exploring: a daycare center for children with developmental disabilities, or anything to do with pets, especially dogs. One day she phoned our dear friend Marilyn who advocates for people with alcohol related birth defects. Providentially, Marilyn was thinking of starting a dog walking business at the very same time! So we decided to establish a business partnership. After three months of intense planning we began Wacheeista's Walk a Dog Service. This dog walking business was quite unique in that the monies earned from walking dogs supported our efforts to educate people about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome/Fetal Alcohol Effect. At Christmas we decided to give our canine customers homemade doggie treats specially wrapped and decorated. We made them in our kitchen, and the recipe was made from only the best ingredients. We wanted the treats to look special and taste good to the dogs. We made extra and easily sold them to our dog-loving friends. We received so many orders for more we talked seriously about getting into the gourmet dog biscuit business and selling our dog biscuits, called Lissie's Luv Yums, to people who loved their pets. Thus the seed was planted. Now, where were the resources needed to help our seed dream root and grow?

Through the Montana Rural Institute on Disabilities I was told about monies available from the Montana Jobs Training Partnership Act, which worked to equalize the employment rates of people with disabilities as compared to people without disabilities. We wrote a grant proposal and presented it to New Directions, the vendor for the program. We succeeded in getting the grant and I become the sole proprietor of our newest venture. I now had money to invest in Lissie's Luv Yums, my gourmet dog treats made from Montana's golden wheat.

In October of that year we hired KFBB-TV to make the best commercial ever. Each year we air the commercial between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Not only is this a gift reminder for people, but an opportunity to spread our message that pregnant women must not drink. It includes our dog Tiger flipping a Luv Yum off her nose and catching it in her mouth. Now if that wouldn't sell a dog treat, what would?

About the same time we hired our talented neighbor, Donna, to develop signs for the front of our house, where we make and sell Lissie's Luv Yums. When people come to buy their Luv Yums they easily see they're at the right place. The sign shows a perky Dalmatian climbing a small ladder trying to get to a big dog bone on a tree that says Lissie's Luv Yums. With three more dog bones nailed to the tree, the display is a real attention-getter.

Our business is at a very exciting place in development. When it started we only sold our product in Great Falls through local flea markets and friends; it has now expanded to a company with customers in 15 states, and we receive a lot of orders through our Web site. We even have an Informal Franchise with a woman in Baker, Montana, who makes and sells the biscuits in her area. We have the 12 oz. Montana Made Dog Biscuit, 16 oz. Fun to Fix Dog Biscuit Mix, and Poochie Snack Pack of nine vacuum-sealed biscuits for when people take their dogs on outings. Lissie's Luv Yums uses flour and wheatberries exclusively from WheatMontana Farms in Three Forks, Montana, and no chemicals are added. We say, "Even you could eat these!"

Our business is unique in that the money earned supports our efforts to educate people about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome/Fetal Alcohol Effect. I am a nationally recognized speaker on FAS and on self-employment for people with disabilities, and my foster mom and I have spoken all over the country. One of my favorite presentations was on my reservation where I gave a talk on alcohol and what the after effects of it have been for me. And the reward was not only that the crowd sat and listened, but I got a big honorary naming ceremony afterwards. I couldn't believe it!

On January 25, 2007 I received a Montana Advocacy Award in Helena for my work in helping others with disabilities gain self-employment. And on November 21, 2007, I was officially accepted as an Executive Member in the 2007/2008 Cambridge Who's Who Executive and Professional Registry.

My advice to other women with disabilities about running their own businesses is this: Don't let other people discourage you from running your business in the way you want to run it. And I would say as an individual that has a business, let your support person guide you in this. It takes two people to run a business. And it makes it stronger if both of you work together on it.