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Youth Convention energized by guitarist's triumph

Playing guitar takes a little effort.

But playing it well, using nothing but two legs and 10 toes?

It's no sweat if you have God's grace. Just ask Tony Melendez.

The internationally known "guitar player with no arms" put on a high-energy performance Friday night, supercharging more than 700 area Catholic youth and kicking off the weekend's 54th annual Diocesan Youth Convention in Adam's Mark Hotel in downtown Buffalo.

"God has given me strength," Melendez said. "It soothes my heart."

A "thalidomide baby," Melendez was born in 1962 without arms after his mother was prescribed the harmful drug during pregnancy. When he was a child, he was brought from Nicaragua to the United States, where he was fitted with artificial arms. He stopped using them when he was 10.

"I didn't feel comfortable," he said. "I could use my feet so much more."

And use them he did.

His public musical life was essentially launched with a 1987 performance in Los Angeles for the late Pope John Paul II. Since then, he has released numerous albums and performed in all 50 states and in 27 countries. Since 1987, he performed eight more times for Pope John Paul and played at several World Youth Day conventions, including last year's in Germany.

He led off his performance Friday by asking his audience to "put your hands together," pointing his bare feet at them and joining them in a rousing, "This Little Light of Mine."

"For some reason, whenever I hit these [guitar strings], [God] takes over somehow," Melendez said.

Melendez followed with "Yahweh, Yahweh," to the tune of "Ole, Ole . . . Hot! Hot! Hot," which brought those gathered to their feet, forming a ballroom-wide train. He slowed things down with "Reach out and touch somebody's . . . shoe, shoulder, back or neck." Youths swayed back and forth, hoisting lighted cellular phones above their heads.

"Tony really inspired me," said Jeff Dorfman, 17, a non-Catholic guest from SS. Peter and Paul Parish in Arcade. "I have had difficulties in my life -- nowhere near the difficulties he had, but music helped me express myself too."

Added Lindsey Glazier, 15, of St. Michael's Parish in Byron: "His energy and his outlook on life and his optimism. . . . We get down on ourselves for stupid little things."

The weekend conference, dubbed "Unite in Faith -- Weave the Future," continues today with a series of youth workshops and an evening dance. A brunch, awards ceremony and Mass will conclude the convention Sunday.


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