QCTimes.com Local News - July 5, 2001
By Barb Arland-Fye / QUAD-CITY TIMES
Melissa Clark, then almost 6, secretly removed a pair of scissors from a
drawer and snipped a half-moon in her future foster mother's pillowcase.
Eighteen years later, Sister Johnelle Howanach, a Roman Catholic nun, fondly
remembers the meeting as love at first sight despite finding the marred
pillowcase after that first visit.
Howanach believes that bit of mischief was a sign from God that the little
girl born with fetal alcohol syndrome, a leading cause of mental retardation,
had the capacity to learn.
With Howanach's steadfast nurturing, Clark, nicknamed "Lissie," has
blossomed into an articulate young woman who operates a growing gourmet dog
biscuit business called Lissie's Luv Yums out of their Great Falls, Mont.,
home. Through the success of the business, Lissie is in demand on the
national speaking circuit.
"My mission," she fervently says, her eyes closed in concentration, "is to
give hope to others who cannot speak for themselves and to educate others
about fetal alcohol syndrome." From that mission has evolved another goal: to
give hope to her people, American Indians.
It is a team effort between foster mother and daughter.
"Lissie will present her story on her challenges and her struggles and how
she overcomes them, and I share the strategies I've used to teach her," says
Howanach, a member of the Davenport-based Congregation of Humility of Mary.
The two shared their story during a recent visit to the Quad-Cities for the
religious community's annual gathering.
Howanach said she did not intend to become a foster mother, but someone
involved with social services asked whether she might consider it.
After having cared for her parents in Montana, Howanach was ready to return
to work as a religious education director.
Still, she was willing to be a foster mother, at least temporarily, she told
the person who asked.
Her only requests were that the child be a girl, and one with special needs.
The social services agency brought Lissie to her.
Howanach had been advised that Lissie was uneducable, the result of being
born with fetal alcohol syndrome.
But the nun, with more than 20 years of teaching experience, saw a child who
was clever, bright-eyed and curious.
"Once I knew she wasn't going to get the education and the help that she
needed if I didn't keep her with me, I couldn't let her go," Howanach said,
adding, "I have to be honest, I'm a natural-born teacher."
Lissie, however, was wary. "I had been bounced around," she explained. The
wounds of rejection had hurt.
Howanach enrolled Lissie in the special education program at school and
worked with her. When Lissie registered for Special Olympics classes in
skiing and skating, the two mastered the skills together. And while Lissie
attended school, Howanach worked as the director of advocates for
developmentally disabled people.
There were tears, frustration and, sometimes, despair along the way. Lissie
had trouble in high school and walked away one time. There were episodes of
lying and other serious problems, but neither mother nor daughter gave up on
one another. Their faith in God helped them through the trying times, they
When Lissie finished Secondary Life Skills, a post-high school class to help
students develop the ability to become as independent as possible, the two
reached a crossroads.
"Lissie was blossoming, learning and acquiring skills that had seemed
unattainable when she started school," Howanach says.
With the help of their friend and social advocate, Marilyn Kind, they
researched career options for Lissie.
Their brainstorming led first to a dog-walking business because Lissie is a
pet lover. They leapfrogged to the dog biscuit business almost by accident
when they began baking treats for their customers' pets on special occasions.
Encouraged by their clients' enthusiastic response, the foster mother and
daughter applied for and received a grant that provided the money necessary
to launch Lissie's Luv Yums gourmet dog biscuit business.
In addition to baking the biscuits and preparing mixes that other people can
bake, Lissie takes customers' orders over the telephone and handles
transactions when people come to pay for and pick up their purchases.
Constant supervision and support are always available, Howanach says. They
have outlets for their product and receive orders from across the country.
"Lissie has a wonderful product that's very popular, and, if we handle it
right, Lissie should be able to expand and have this business for the rest of
her life," Howanach says.
But the biscuit business is just a small part of the thrust of the mission.
"It's enabling them to move forward in this work of helping the alcoholic,
the disabled, the Native Americans," said Sister Adrienne Marie Savage, a
longtime friend and member of the Congregation of Humility of Mary in
Savage marvels at the relationship she has watched blossom over the years.
"The growth that I see in Melissa, and the happiness that has been brought
into Johnelle's life through their interrelationship has provided the
opportunity for each of them to live out their God-given gifts," she said.