A Catholic nun and her foster daughter have created a unique business baking and selling doggie treats as a way to support themselves and educate the public about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
Each weekday morning, 32-year-old Melissa Clark and her foster mom, Sister Johnelle Howanach (pronounced HowANik), start their day in pretty much the same way. They jump out of bed, dress and head straight to the kitchen even before showering to continue Melissa’s fight to educate about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS).
A disorder caused when women drink alcohol while pregnant, FAS impairs the development of babies’ brains and bodies. Melissa (also known as Lissie) knows all about it. She was one of the first babies in Montana to be diagnosed with the syndrome. Now her life’s mission is to educate pregnant women about what drinking does to their unborn children.
Her weapon against FAS is not what you might expect. Melissa and Sister Johnelle prepare and bake natural doggie biscuits, which they have aptly named “Lissie’s Luv Yums.”
Melissa was born two months premature on Nov. 5, 1976, weighing about three pounds. Her doctor made a note on her medical records in February 1977: “This patient was a markedly premature child. Mother was an alcoholic, drank a lot. This may have something to do with the child’s present condition.”
At 18 months, the baby was diagnosed with what was then called fetal maternal syndrome, later named Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
In Montana as many as three dozen babies may be affected by the syndrome each year, according to Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome rates among Native Americans are estimated to be 30 times higher than that for whites.
FAS made life very difficult for this little Native American baby, a member of the Gros Ventres Assiniboine Tribe. Melissa was put into a foster home. When she was two, an apparent miracle happened. A family took her for adoption. She stayed with them until she was five, before the family “unadopted” her. Eventually, the short-term adoptive parents wrote a book about their three-year experience with Melissa. They titled it Unknown Hell.
On God’s String
Meanwhile, Sister Johnelle, a member of the Congregation of the Humility of Mary, had left her job as a religious education director and had come to Belt in 1973 to care for her ailing parents. Her father passed away in 1976, her mother, six years later.
“After they were gone,” she says, “I remember sitting in their home, looking at the yard and thinking, ‘I would like to share all this with someone who needs a home.’”
It wasn’t long before she found that “someone.” It was while helping an abused youngster receive care that she was asked by a social worker if she had ever considered providing foster care. She said yes and was interviewed on the spot.
“My ministry is working with the developmentally disabled or the mentally challenged,” Sister Johnelle says.
“I am called to help people develop to their full potential-no matter what it takes.”
So, during the interview, she told the social worker, “If I’m going to do this, I would like to have someone with special needs, because I feel I have a gift for working with people with special needs. If I’m going to do it, I want it to be worthwhile. And I don’t care if they are pink or purple with polka dots.”
The social worker stopped in mid-sentence and stared at Sister Johnelle, unable to speak. Finally she managed to blurt out the words. “I got a phone call less than an hour ago about a little girl with
developmental disabilities who is being un-adopted.”
Sister Johnelle says she felt then—and still feels—as though God has been directing her relationship with Melissa.
“I feel like I have a string coming out of the top of my head and God’s leading me around to what I should do,” she says.
An Attention Span of a Minute
And so in 1982, she became foster parent to a 5-year-old Native American girl, whose future looked dim. Doctors had long designated her as non-educable.
Sister Johnelle knew right away Melissa was not going to be an easy child. She had significant vision and hearing problems, coordination deficiencies, immature feeding skills, limited communication abilities and was taking numerous medications.
“I thought, ‘My God, what am I getting myself into?’”the foster mom admits.
The first several weeks were spent eliminating many of the drugs. Special speech therapy helped overcome some verbal difficulties.
Schooling was a step away from impossible. “She had an attention span of no more than a minute,” says Sister Johnelle.
“She was a truly hyperactive person… just swinging from the chandeliers.
A Ray of Hope
With tears in her eyes, she remembered the day God showed them their ray of hope. “We had this horrible green carpet and the sun was coming through the window,” she says. “Somehow the shadows formed an M on the floor.”
Melissa was six and she could sing the alphabet song, but Sister Johnelle knew she didn’t understand what she was saying.
“I took her hand and moved it over the M, telling her again and again, “This is your M. Finally she said it and I could tell she ‘got’ it. I knew then for sure that she could learn.”
“School was hard,” Melissa herself says. “I was in a special-education class, but it seemed all the kids were two or three steps ahead of me. They always seemed to have the answers when I didn’t.”
She had difficulty with concepts such as English. And math was all but impossible. But she readily picked up tactile subjects such as art and music. Despite all these difficulties, Melissa made her way through grade school in Belt with the help of her foster mother who spent countless hours with her, using simpler teaching tools than were used in schools.
When Melissa expressed an interest in learning to play the violin, Sister Johnelle gave her Suzuki music lessons. Melissa mastered the instrument well enough to perform publicly, making the violin a part of the FAS talks she began to give to schools and organizations. She was also drawn to sports, winning gold medals at Special Olympics in skiing and skating.
Along the way, special teachers took an interest and made an extra effort to help Melissa. A sixth-grade teacher who saw potential in the little girl gave her the Indian name Wacheeista, meaning “Dancing Eyes.”
When Melissa graduated from C.M. Russell High School in Great Falls, the child that doctors had deemed “uneducable” was reading at a sixth-grade level. “As you can see,” Sister Johnelle says with a smile, “they were full of prunes.”
After graduating, Melissa was enrolled at Secondary Life Skills, a class that helps each student develop skills to become as independent as possible. Sister Johnelle had been employed for
six years by Advocates for the Developmentally Disabled, a United Way Agency. But as her foster daughter finished her second year at Secondary Life Skills, the nun struggled with a life decision.
“Melissa was blossoming, learning and acquiring skills that had seemed unattainable when she started school,” Sister Johnelle says. “She was at that magical level where she could learn and was interested in exploring and growing. I hated to sit back and see her lose the skills she had worked so hard to develop.”
Sister Johnelle quit her job, trusting that God was leading her in this decision. His confirmation wasn’t quite what she expected. She fell and broke her ankle. Monthly disability checks for which Melissa was now eligible eased the financial burden and enabled Sister Johnelle to look for some kind of work she could share with her foster daughter.
And once again God came through. “I was talking to my dear friend, Marilyn Kind,” Sister Johnelle says, “and she asked me what Melissa and I were going to do. I told her Lissie and I had talked about starting a dog-walking business.
Her friend was stunned. “We both got the idea at the same time,” Sister Johnelle says. “Truly it’s the hand of God. You can’t believe what I have on my computer screen at this very moment,” Marilyn remembers saying. “I’m making business cards for the dog-walking business I was planning to start.”
After meeting every night for weeks, Marilyn, Melissa, and Sister Johnelle went into business together as “Wacheeista’s Walk-a-Dog Service.”
Melissa was involved in every step of setting up the business. She asked neighbors to sign a statement giving her permission to use her home as a base of operations. With support, she was able to handle client interviews and was responsible for record-keeping, utilizing her hardwon math skills.
A new and exciting opportunity opened up at Christmas in 1998. The three partners decided to give their canine customers homemade doggie treats specially wrapped and decorated. They made extra
and easily sold them to dog-loving friends. An idea was born. A grant from the Federal Jobs Training Partnership Act and the Rural Institute on Disabilities provided resources to pay business start-up costs. And Lissies’s Luv Yums, doggie treats made from Montana’s golden wheat, were on their way.
“We experimented with many recipes,” Sister Johnelle says. “It was by guess and by golly. We knew we had to come up with something
special. We had to have a hook.”
Marilyn’s old dog, Duchess, was a graceful taste-tester.
“When we hit something she loved and could OK, we knew we had a winner,” says Marilyn.
The factory is basic. Almost everything is done by hand in their kitchen. They grind the wheat and soy, mix the ingredients, roll out the dough, punch out the shapes of the biscuits with a dog-bone cookie cutter and bake them.
The end products are small, bone-shaped treats. The “smalls” have printed on them “Puppy ♥” and the “bigs” have “I ♥ my dog.” Melissa and her foster mom hand-paint
the heart on each of them with beet juice. “Our ingredients are 100 percent natural.” Sister Johnelle says with pride. “Our quality has to be absolutely tip-top.”
Staggering Costs to the Economy
The treats are sorted by hand and vacuum-packed on a small machine into 12-ounce packages. Inside each package is a slip of paper relating to staggering costs of FAS to the U.S. economy. And on the back of each package is Melissa’s message:
“My name is Melissa and I wear one of the many faces of the leading known cause of mental retardation in the country. It is called Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and it is 100 percent preventable… I beg you, if you are pregnant please don’t drink.”
The business has grown enough to make a living for Melissa. She faces challenges in trying to make the venture work. She has poor short-term memory and learns in small increments. New situations are especially stressful and she’s easily distracted from the subject at hand. But the business enhances the skills she has acquired.
As the spokeswoman for the business, she created a video commercial for a local TV station. Melissa takes orders over the phone and can handle the transactions when people come to their home to pick up and pay for the biscuits.
“She’s worked on her multiplication tables,” Sister Johnelle explains, “so she can quote correct prices when people want to buy several packages.”
She also records all payments and eagerly hands out her flashy purple business cards to any who are interested.
“We’re making business decisions now that we hope will help us expand,” Sister Johnelle says. She says their dream is eventually to put other people with disabilities to work. Proceeds from the nonprofit business help fund the lectures given by the business partners. They travel to schools and organizations, presenting facts about FAS and relating like experiences. Melissa often steals the show, exhibiting her talents for public speaking and playing the violin.
“She blows them out of the water,” Sister Johnelle says with a grin. “She doesn’t see herself as handicapped. She just faces certain challenges. In fact, she is proud of who she is and that includes her syndrome.”
Melissa’s aim is steadfast: “My mission in life is to educate all people about FAS,” she says. “I want to give hope to people like me and help them achieve their dreams.”
At a talk at a Native American after-school program in Helena, one of the little girls in the audience, who had a learning disability, said to Melissa, “I don’t do very well in school.”
Melissa told her, “If you don’t know something, you ask. And you keep asking until they answer your question. If you need help, you’ve got to ask and don’t give up. If I can do it, so can you.”
Sister Johnelle’s face is filled with love and pride as she says, “I don’t think there will ever be another moment that will be more poignant to me.”
This article by Judie E. Gulley was reprinted with permission of St. Anthony Messenger Press.