Meet this month's Featured Emerging Leader!
Emerging Leaders

One of the goals of the Rural Institute Transition and Employment Projects is to expand the vision of what is possible for youth and young adults with developmental disabilities to learn, live, work and play in their communities. We have been capturing stories of Montanans who have a developmental disability according to the Montana definition and who have creatively organized their supports to:
  • Live in the community (on their own or with family or friends) and/or
  • Work in the community (including owning their own business) and/or
  • Access inclusive education (high school, college, community classes) and/or
  • Participate in recreation and leisure activities that are inclusive (that is, alongside people without disabilities)
As we receive them, we share these stories with Transition Email List members. You may also read about Montana's Emerging Leaders in our Featured EL Archives, 2009 EL Showcase [PDF] and 2010 EL Showcase [PDF]. To nominate yourself or someone else as an Emerging Leader, visit the Rural Institute Transition and Employment Projects web site.

An Emerging Leader Update from Lissie
By Lauren Beyer, UM Rural Institute
Lissie standing behind her dog biscuit display table

Fifteen years ago, Melissa, lovingly nicknamed Lissie, pushed bottles on an assembly line two or three days a week. Her life was often dictated by what others told her she could not do rather than what she thought she could learn. Today, Lissie is a successful and respected businesswoman. She is confident and proud to be a taxpaying member of society.

Lissie was interviewed in 2009 as part of the Emerging Leader series. I called six years later to find out what was new. The first thing she told me, laughing, is that she is no longer 33 years old. In addition, her recognition is growing, as well as her business responsibilities. Her life is full of activity, relationships, and activism. She is a busy woman who accomplishes whatever she is determined to pursue.

Lissie measuring wheatberries
Lisie's business is named Lissie's Luv Yums, a dog biscuit business out of Great Falls, Montana. It has been flourishing for fifteen years, and each year rings in more success. The establishment of this business has wrought an utter transformation in Lissie, in all aspects of her life. It should be noted here that Lissie has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or FAS. Prior to Lissie's Luv Yums, mobility in her right hand was limited. Now, though, she has rolled enough dough to increase her strength and mobility on that side. Furthermore, fifteen years ago, Lissie believed she would not be able to make change or do simple math. Now, because of impressive organizational skills, she handles all the math required for operating a small business. She gives the proper change to customers when they buy her product at farmers markets and holiday gatherings. She calls local businesses to place an order for the exact amount of ingredients she will need to make her treats. She keeps track of expenditures and revenues for her taxes by recording everything in a little notebook, including miles traveled for business. She totals all expenditures and claims them on her taxes.

She speaks alongside her foster mother, Sister Johnelle, who notes that one of the
Lissie and Sister Johnelle
biggest obstacles Lissie has overcome in the last few years is her ability to ask for help. Part of being independent is knowing when to ask for help and knowing how to verbalize that, she says. This skill has greatly increased Lissie's independence, as well as improved the relationship between the two. "I used to feel like I was the top dog," she comments, "but now I feel like we're best friends."

Lissie loves making the dog treats and she does it with a purpose. Each package of biscuits serves as a plea to prevent FAS. A small tag included in each package details the annual costs of raising a child with FAS. Furthermore, a note says simply: "If you are pregnant, please do not drink." This product and message is garnering local and international support.

Recently, Lissie and Johnelle were contacted by a representative of Akina, an organization which features the work of entrepreneurs and their community. The program is based out of New Zealand, a clear sign that Lissie's fame and impact knows no boundaries. She is well known and respected in her local community as well. She sells her treats at farmers markets, and when I called, the team was busy prepping for the holiday season and all the events where locals will clamor to buy her product.

Her impact is larger than her business, however. She raises hundreds of dollars annually through a penny drive, which she donates to charity. People know this of her and will drop by the house with baggies of pennies to contribute to the fund. Perhaps what Lissie is most proud of is her activism on behalf of Barry Beach. Each Wednesday, along with a group of others, she stands in solidarity in downtown Great Falls. She and Johnelle even make trips to Deer Lodge to visit Barry Beach in prison. Lissie remembers what it is like not to have a voice, but now she does. Her voice has contributed to changes in legislation which impact the justice system; her voice is loud.

She works hard. She cares hard. And she plays hard, too. She rattled off a long list of recreational activities she enjoys. She has a boyfriend she sees on Fridays. She attends yoga, prayer group, and movies. She finds creativity in decorating calendars, and rumor has it, she has a famous spaghetti recipe.

Lissie is proof that disabilities are only as powerful as one allows them to be. Because of her tenacity, Lissie has shamed hers.
Lissie painting hearts on dog biscuits

This project is funded in whole or in part under a contract with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. The statements herein do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Department.

Rural Institute Transition and Employment Projects
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