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Bringing Hope
A mom's love and word's of faith transform a tragedy into a life-changing miracle.

Tony Melendez, originally from Nicaragua, was born with no arms, had a clubbed foot and eleven toes. His mother, Sara, had taken just one thalidomide pill. The year was 1962 and by 1964 over 10,000 babies around the world had been born without arms or legs. The new wonder drug, said to help combat morning sickness, proved to be a devastating thief.

Tony Melendez
Singer/songwriter Tony Melendez learned to play his dad's guitar as a teen.

His mom's uncle, Dr. Tono, returned to his office and wept after delivering Melendez. No one in the family had the courage to tell Sara what had happened. Eventually she was told but it was five days before she got to see her son.

She still remembers that first day when her baby boy was brought from the hospital nursery. Tightly wrapped in a light-blue blanket he was placed in her open arms.

She carefully unwrapped her newborn and began to nurse him, at the same time gently speaking words that revealed her great faith and the vision she had for her son.

"Jose Antonio Melendez Rodriquez," she whispered to her armless child, "you are a beautiful baby. God has given you so much. You have a wonderful face with dark-brown eyes, a cute little nose, pouty lips and two tiny, perfect ears. With your eyes you will see God's gifts all around you: the bright red parrots sitting in the coconut trees and the white clouds high up in the sky. With that little nose you will smell the flowers and the incense and the fragrant candles burning at God's altar. With your lips you will sing songs and pray prayers to your Father in heaven. And with those perfect little ears you will hear His voice in the wind, in the sea and in your heart telling you, 'I love you, Tony. I love you very much."

At the age of one his family immigrated to California so he could have corrective surgery on his left foot in order for him to walk.

He grew up in a home where his mom protected and cared greatly for him and at the same time had a father who encouraged and pushed him to do things on his own. As he had no arms, Melendez learned to do almost everything with his feet and at the age of 16 taught himself how to play his dad's guitar.

Finding it hard to get a job after graduating from high school, he began playing guitar on the streets.

"For about four months I sang on that street corner in Laguna Beach three or four days a week to help earn money to pay our family's bills," Melendez admitted. "I wondered if this would be my future; singing for quarters thrown into my open guitar case."

As he grew proficient at his guitar playing he also matured as a singer and composer. In 1987 he was asked to audition to sing and play for Pope John Paul II on his visit to Los Angeles. It was this internationally broadcast event that set this young man's career into high gear.

"I never dreamed during those months of playing and singing on the street corner that my very next gig would be before the pope himself," Melendez noted, "and for tens of millions of people in a television audience that stretched around the globe. Then suddenly I was there, sitting on that little red platform built especially for me in the middle of the Universal Amphitheatre in Hollywood."

As Melendez finished his song, the pope descended from the stage, walked up to him, kissed his cheek and said out loud for all to hear, "Tony, Tony, you are a courageous young man, and you are giving hope to us all. My wish to you is to continue giving hope … Hope to us all."

"The next day there were three news cameras sitting at my front door," Melendez said. "The telephone started ringing at 6:30 in the morning until 10:30 at night for a week."

"That was a turning point in Tony's career," reported Julie Kohler, Director of the Life and Family Resource Centre, Catholic Pastoral Centre in Calgary. "In a gesture that seemed to reflect the sentiments of a nation the pope jumped from his chair to embrace Tony in a sign of sincere affection and affirmation. Since that memorable moment Tony has been in demand as an inspirational speaker and performer across North America and on national TV."

Now, more than 18 years later, Melendez has performed across the US and Canada and around the world. Today he travels with his brother José sharing with young and old alike their message of hope, encouragement and faith. Melendez has recorded five albums and written an autobiography.

He is married and he and his wife, Lynn, have two children, Marisa and Andres. Despite all the attention, Melendez continues to resist the siren song of stardom, hoping only to develop his musical career and share his God-given gifts. "I don't feel like a celebrity," he said with a smile, "I just feel like me!"

One TV host said to him, "You don't feel you have a disability at all do you?"

"No," Melendez quipped, "I drive. I swim. I skateboard. I fall down."

John Syratt is the editor of City Light News.

Originally published in City Light News, November 2005.




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