by Janelle Von Pinnon and Logan Gruber
Tony Melendez may not have arms, but within a few minutes after entering the sanctuary at St. Francis Xavier Parish on the evening of Sept. 12, he had those in the audience clapping, snapping and waving theirs, hands and arms that is, while he played his guitar with his feet and toes. His infectious smile and laughter, warmhearted demeanor and rich baritone voice filled the room with positive energy, enthusiasm and a love of God and life.
Melendez was born without arms in 1962 in Nicaragua. His deformity stemmed from his mother’s use of the drug thalidomide during her pregnancy with him. At the time, the drug was prescribed for morning sickness then was later restricted due to causing abnormalities in fetuses.
Melendez explained he was also born with a club foot, his left one, which required several surgeries to correct. His family would travel from Nicaragua to California (a 14-hour trip each way) each time he needed a surgery so ultimately decided to move to California permanently, where he was raised.
At 16, his father bought him a guitar. At first, Melendez said, his older brother Jose and his two younger sisters would say to him, “Please stop that noise” or to their parents, “Don’t let him keep playing,” but with lots of persistence and determination, he improved.
By age 25, Melendez and his “Toe Jam Band” were performing frequently around the Los Angeles area. One of his most memorable moments, he said, was when he performed for Pope John Paul II in September 1987. The Pope, visibly moved, wended through the crowd, gave Melendez a hug and kiss, and asked him to continue to spread hope to the world. And that inspired Melendez to share his story of heartache and triumph.
Melendez said while he was growing up, he hoped to one day marry and have a family, but the girls would all stare or shriek and run the other way. Then he said God sent him an angel, his wife Lynn, who has been the love and support he needed. He also said they had just celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary in August.
A sad memory he has is when his father passed away at age 42 because of alcoholism. He also said one of the worst things he’s had to overcome was when he feared he and Lynn would never become parents. But when the couple learned they weren’t able to conceive, also due to Thalidomide side effects, they adopted two children, a girl and a boy, now 21 and 18.
During the entire concert, Melendez wove humor and songs of inspiration, motivation and love, in both English and Spanish, throughout the telling of his life’s journey. He emphasized life is not without challenges, everyone has them, some greater than others. But if all will help spread love and support to one another, strength is in numbers.
For more information on Melendez, head to www.tonymelendez.com.
During his time in Sartell, Melendez was hosted by the Kristi and Cory Sabrowsky family.
“It was an honor for us to have him,” Kristi Sabrowsky said in an interview with the Sartell Newsleader on Sept. 16.
Sabrowsky said her cousin, Mike Illies, saw posts she made on Facebook regarding Tom Bearson and Sam Traut. Illies thought the community of Sartell could use some healing, and felt that Melendez, a friend of his, might be able to help. Sabrowsky volunteered her home immediately.
“I said, ‘He can stay with us!’ without thinking that it might be difficult . . . but he was a calming presence. He prayed with us,” Sabrowsky said.
Melendez arrived on Friday and played a concert at St. Francis Xavier Catholic School on Sept. 11 for the students. The Sabrowskys have two children at SFX: Kenna, who is 8 years old and in the third grade; and Keaton who is 5 years old and in kindergarten. Their third child, Cannon, is 2 years old.
Melendez went home with the family after the concert, along with his brother Jose and sound/light guy Al.
“My kids were a little curious how it was going to go since we gave our guests their rooms . . . but they enjoyed having a sleepover in the living room,” Sabrowsky said. “After the concert though, the kids thought it was pretty cool to have a superstar in our home.”
Sabrowski said her kids were curious to find out how Melendez could do certain things, like eat or dress. But once they got to know him, eating by putting your mouth to the plate or playing cards with your toes seemed like business as usual.
“Tony said, ‘You’ll have to retrain your kids once I leave!'” Sabrowski told the Newsleader.