Message of hope

Melendez to present concert in Ebensburg

Tony Melendez is a self-taught guitarist. He had to be. No instructor knew how to teach him to strum the strings with his feet.

The son of a mother who took thalidomide to ease morning sickness during pregnancy, Melendez was born in 1962 in Rivas, Nicaragua, without arms. The sedative drug, first synthesized in 1954 in West Germany, was later found to cause damage to fetuses. Thousands of children were born with severe congenital malformations, and many did not survive.

When Melendez was just a year old, his family moved to America and, at age 16, he started taking an interest in playing the guitar.

“My dad was a guitarist,” Melendez explained. “He did it for fun, but he could have been a professional. He was that good.”

Having found a way to master the instrument on his own, Melendez sings and gives concerts worldwide. Among his upcoming engagements will be a community concert at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 21, at Holy Name Catholic Church, 500 N. Julian St., Ebensburg. There is no admission charge, but an offering will be accepted.

He will perform earlier in the day at the parish for Catholic school students in the Prince Gallitzin Quadrant (Holy Name in Ebensburg, All Saints in Cresson, Saint Michael in Loretto, Saint Benedict in Carrolltown, Northern Cambria Catholic in Nicktown and Bishop Carroll Catholic High School in Ebensburg).

He is coming to Ebensburg at the invitation of Father Brian L. Warchola, who met Melendez at a Pro-Life Mass for the 2006 March for Life at the MCI Center (now Capitol One Center) in Washington, D.C.

Warchola said he inquired as to whether Melendez would be willing to come to Ebensburg because he is always looking for ways to build up the church and offer a positive message.

“We appreciate Father Warchola inviting Melendez to Holy Name and sharing this special opportunity with the entire diocese,” said Tony DeGol, director of communications for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

He said that although he has never met Melendez, he has seen videos of his music.

“He is truly inspirational,” DeGol said. “His unique talent is a very good reminder that all of us are blessed with gifts, and we should use those gifts no matter the challenges we face. I hope our young people, in particular, come away with that message.”

When he met Melendez 14 years ago, Warchola said he could sense a spirit of holiness. He said Melendez has a great gift of musical talent that he expresses in a unique way.

“He has a positive message of hope,” Warchola said.

During a telephone interview, Melendez said he has visited central Pennsylvania previously and remembers being on stage at the Creation Festival in Shirleysburg in the early 2000s.

“It was like Woodstock, but Christian,” he said.

By that time, Melendez had become world famous due to Pope John Paul II’s reaction after Melendez played “Never Be the Same” during the pontiff’s visit to Los Angeles in 1987. Pope John Paul II left his seat and stepped off the stage so he could acknowledge Melendez, who had performed on a small stage a few feet away.

“The pope jumped into the audience and kissed me. It was something spontaneous,” Melendez said. “It was shared around the world.”

After that, he became known for his musical ability and has traveled in all 50 states and to 44 countries.

“It opened doors for me,” said Melendez, who has appeared on the “Today” show, “Good Morning America” and “CBS This Morning,” along with numerous other programs including “The 700 Club.”

He sang the National Anthem at the 1989 World Series and was the first recipient of the annual Inspirational Hero Award from the NFL Alumni Association at Super Bowl XXIII.

His autobiography, “A Gift of Hope,” was a best seller.

Bilingual, Melendez has recorded albums in Spanish and English. His album, “Hands in Heaven,” includes “I Wish I Could Hold You,” a dedication to his wife, Lynn, and their children.

In addition to giving concerts, Melendez, who lives in Branson, Missouri, holds parish missions and is a motivational speaker who addresses employees at corporations and students at schools.

Melendez said when he speaks at corporate events, he talks about his life.

At schools, he talks about self-esteem, bullying, disability awareness, cultural awareness, drugs and addiction.

Melendez remembers being taunted as a youth because he was different.

“I blew it off. I didn’t pay any attention to it,” he said, adding that he considered that “it was not my problem, it was their problem.”

When it comes to limitations, Melendez said he figures out a way to do something or get help.

Warchola said Melendez does not let anything stop him; he has a specially equipped car that he is able to drive.

But even Melendez admits he can’t do everything and asks for help when necessary.

“There are always things you can’t do, it doesn’t matter who you are,” he said.

Above all, Melendez said he receives strength from his spiritual life.

“My faith is very important to me,” he said. “Without faith, I would just be singing.”