EBENSBURG – Tony Melendez has made it his life's mission to spread a message of hope.
The guitarist, who was born without arms and plays the instrument with his feet, performed a concert Tuesday for area students at Holy Name Roman Catholic Church while also sharing his story and Catholic faith.
"If I can be a hope giver in my lifetime, I say, 'Thank you Lord,' " Melendez said. "It's exciting to be with the kids and community here at the parish. It's always a blessing when they invite me to come and be with them, so I feel honored more than anything."
About 700 area students from kindergarten through 10th grade attended the concert.
A second concert was set for Tuesday evening at the church for members of the community.
The early program featured special music, prayer, a video presentation on Melendez's life experiences and interaction with students inviting them to sing and play along with select musical numbers.
"Hope is something that people are looking for, that little glimmer of hope to help them carry on again," said Melendez, who resides in Branson, Missouri.
Melendez, a native of Nicaragua, was born without arms, a birth defect caused by his mother taking thalidomide, a prescription drug used to calm morning sickness during pregnancy.
He took up guitar as a teenager in the mid-1980s when living in Los Angeles.
"My dad had a guitar and I never dreamed I'd figure it out, but the secret was a different tuning and the music just started flowing shortly after," Melendez said.
Father Brian Warchola, pastor Holy Name Roman Catholic Church, said he originally met Melendez at a pro-life event in Washington, D.C., and reached out to see if he'd be interested in performing a local concert.
"This is someone who is very strong in his Catholic faith and gives people joy and hope," he said. "The fact that he doesn't have any arms and has been able to become such a powerful musician is incredible and shows the miracles that God performs."
He said for the students the hope is they will see that nothing is impossible through faith.
"They can do many good things, but I also want them to have fun and enjoy the day and be prayerful and be filled with the Holy Spirit," Warchola said.
On Sept. 15, 1987, Melendez sang "Never Be the Same" while playing the guitar with his feet in a special performance for Pope John Paul II. Visibly moved, the Pope descended from his chair and embraced Melendez wishing for him to continue giving hope to others.
"I've been to about 44 countries with my musical abilities and I never dreamed that I would be doing this," Melendez said. "This is a calling for me and it's challenged me, but it's a part of my heart I have to go and do."