No such thing as can't: Fishing clinic speaker tells kids the importance of overcoming obstacles

·3 min read

Aug. 1—Tony Meléndez strummed his guitar as he spoke to an audience of children and parents Thursday at Kokomo High School.

"You're able to do a lot more than you can imagine," he told them.

Meléndez can attest to it. Born without arms after his mother took thalidomide while pregnant, that hasn't stopped Meléndez from driving, fishing or inspiring others to push away obstacles.

Meléndez was this year's guest speaker for the Jim "Moose" Carden Kids Fishing Clinic. He spoke for about an hour, sang songs with help from the audience, took questions from kids and delivered a positive message about trying your best.

An avid fisherman, the Nicaragua native played a video of how he fishes with his feet.

A closed reel rod is preferred because he can push the button and cast a line with just a flick of his feet. Meléndez wears a harness attached to a seat in the boat to ensure "the fish doesn't pull me in."

Meléndez immigrated to the states as a child with his family. He said the Ozarks "took me to another level" in regard to his joy of fishing.

Meléndez got the audience singing and clapping with the "we love you" song where he had people shoutout names of loved ones. For example, "We love you Lucas, yes we do."

The songs injected energy and fun as Meléndez encouraged kids to remove a certain phrase from their vocabulary.

"I'm hoping you'll get rid of the words 'I can't' and start saying ..."

"I can!" the kids replied in unison.

Meléndez rose to fame in 1987 when he sang "Never Be the Same" while playing the guitar with his feet for Pope John Paul II. The Pope kissed him and encouraged Meléndez to share his story and give others hope.

He's been on "Good Morning America," "The Arsenio Hall Show" and other talk shows. Meléndez was honored by former President Ronald Reagan with a Special Commendation for being a positive role model for America.

"If I can do what I'm doing with these 10 toes only, imagine what you can do if you try, truly try," Meléndez told the kids Thursday.

Most of the questions children asked the speaker revolved around living without arms.

A steering wheel down near the pedals enables Meléndez to drive. He had to pass a driver's test.

To put on a shirt, it's key to leave the top two buttons undone so Meléndez can get his head through.

"It's like playing horseshoes with your head," he said.

Meléndez started playing music and speaking at his church.

"They pulled it out of me," he said, crediting the congregation for his rise as an inspiration speaker.

Meléndez travels upward of 20 days a month speaking and performing. His brother José travels with him, operating the visual and audio components of presentations.

"I'm his hands," José said. "We're not only brothers, we're friends, and we help each other."

Meléndez said he enjoys the trips and the food that comes with his travels. But ultimately, it's the people who give him the best feeling.

"It's a neat time to see the family atmosphere," Meléndez said. "That's what I love about my family."

Fishing clinic organizers presented Meléndez and José with hats bearing the name of the Howard County summer staple. Clinic participants gathered on stage for a group photo with the speaker. The clinic wrapped up Saturday with the annual graduation tournament on Kokomo Reservoir.

Meléndez said a young boy approached him afterward and said he enjoyed his presentation.

"When the boys say that, that's rare," he said.

Spencer Durham can be reached at 765-454-8598, by email at or on Twitter at @Durham_KT.