By Alison Zenisek
“I was at the end of the line,” said Joe Calendino, recipient of the 2014 Courage to Come Back award in Vancouver. Once a “full patch member” of the Hells Angels, he was heavily into drugs. “I was doing cocaine, perks, oxy, GHB and crack.” He was also a notorious street fighter. “One of the reasons I was kicked out of the Hells Angels was for fighting in full colours in a Kelowna casino.” You know you’ve hit bottom when your behaviour becomes unacceptable to an outlaw motorcycle gang. He lost his membership in the Hells Angels long before his addiction bottomed out. It was that assault in Kelowna that got Calendino arrested and eventually led to a decision to turn his life around. Providentially, one of the officers involved in his arrest had attended high school with Calendino. Kevin Torvik was now a sergeant with the Vancouver police. The arrest was a stark reminder to both men of the different paths they had chosen.
Calendino was arrested again for selling a $10 rock to an undercover officer. His cocaine addiction had turned into a crack addiction as his finances dried up. He was destitute and living on the street. The addiction had tightened its grip around every aspect of his life. “I was lying on the prison floor and I was going through withdrawal, full withdrawal, and I felt like taking a gun and blowing the back of my head out.” Torvik visited him in jail and was shocked by the deterioration he saw in the once tough and fit gangster. He was now an emaciated crackhead.
Torvik brought him a bag of food from McDonald’s. Calendino remembers eating and listening to what the sergeant had to say. He had tried unsuccessfully to stop using several times before, but he told Torvik he wanted to quit. In a moment of clarity, he decided his mission would be to insure that kids did not make the same poor choices he had, that they did not stray into the dark world of addiction, alcohol, and violence. Torvik was skeptical that his old classmate would follow through on that plan, but he urged him to call his old teacher Jim Crescenzo for help.
The call was made and it became the turning point in Calendino’s life. He went into treatment and then followed a recovery plan. He has made good on his plan to help teens at risk. “Currently, what I believe in is I had to go through what I went through in order to get where I was going.” After speaking to a particularly hardened group of youth at a school and witnessing the impact he made, the seed for a martial arts program germinated. Calendino, a black belt himself, now teaches Judo to boys that also include lessons in discipline, self-defence, nutrition, and how to contribute to the community. He is the founder of the BC based non-profit Yo Bro Yo Girl (YBYG) which aims to steer youth, ages 11 through 22, away from drugs and gangs. After graduation former students can return and become mentors themselves. “They’re so proud of being able to give back,” says Doug Litke, a staff member at Central City Learning Centre in Surrey. There Calendino runs Yo Bro as part of the curriculum and as an evening drop in program. Principal Janice Smith asserts that the students relate to Calendino because of his openness to his own struggles with substance abuse. YBYG now has chapters in Vancouver, Surrey, and Chilliwack.
Calendino has recently co-authored a memoir with veteran educator, Gary Little. The book details Calendino’s journey from the ranks of the elite Hells Angels NOMAD chapter to the crack houses and streets of Vancouver. His struggles are captured on the pages of this gritty and compelling story titled To Hell and Back: A former Hells Angel story of recovery and redemption. Little chose to work with Calendino on the book with the hope that the powerful story inspires students who feel marginalized to make wise decisions. The decisions made in high school and early adulthood have long term consequences. The perceived glamour of joining a gang and the accompanying crime and substance abuse is in reality self-destructive.
Calendino holds no ill will towards his former gang members, as the mistakes he made were his own. There were times during his life on the streets where he was struggling with drugs, debt, and desperation. Speaking specifically about the reality of joining any gang, group, or crew, “just be careful of that choice. Be it the Hells Angels or another group, there is no bed of roses at the end of the journey.” There are people who want to help, he says… “no matter what the adversity anybody is up against, there is a way out, and there’s opportunities for you once you decide to make the change.”
The book is not just helpful to youth. Parents have their own questions and the story gives an honest glimpse of the rocky road to recovery. Calendino’s family never gave up on him, but there were moments of extreme desperation. The book chronicles Joe’s siblings spending early mornings and late nights searching the back alleys of Surrey and the greater Vancouver area trying to find Joe when he was in the grip of addiction. Writing the book was difficult as he had to relive the more painful aspects of his past, but overall it has been a positive endeavour. “We’ve been getting amazing feedback… what we are finding is that everybody has been coming back to us with their stories and their feelings of hope or what they’re going through with a loved one.” The book has opened up more dialogue regarding issues of substance abuse and gangs. More importantly, it’s inspiring people to make good choices in their lives.
Calendino is aware that gang activity he sees on the street today bears very little resemblance to what he lived through. In August and September of 2017 there was a deadly week of violence across Metro Vancouver related to a turf war. This was difficult news for the man who now runs gang prevention programs in schools. “A lot of guys now are dial-a-doping,” (a street level drug dealing operation where orders are taken by phone). The gangs are more splintered than they used to be, with younger kids fighting over shrinking territory. The scale of suffering users face has also ramped up because of Vancouver’s relentless opioid crisis. “This is a different beast now. The New York Times has called the current wave that we’re up against the modern day plague,” he said. “You have to think, where are we at? How did we get here?” With so many overlapping forces at play, Calendino and his co-workers focus their attention on improving and expanding their mentorship and anti-gang program, Yo Bro Yo Girl. “The best way to put it is I didn’t choose this journey. This journey chose me. You don’t have to stop what you haven’t started.” He hopes he can give the youth an opportunity to learn from him and prevent them from being swept into Vancouver’s gang and opioid epidemic.