Former Hells Angel Hopes to Steer Youths Away from Lives of Crime

Joe Calendino, co-founder of the Yo Bro Yo Girl Youth Initiative, wants to prepare kids to say no to gangs and drugs

The Yo Bro Yo Girl Youth Initiative is a gang and drug prevention organization which works in various school districts across Vancouver, Surrey, and Chilliwack. (Flickr/Joe Wolf)

Since he was in eighth grade, Joe Calendino has been in and out of trouble.

The former Hells Angel, co-founder of the Yo Bro Yo Girl Youth Initiative, now spends his time mentoring youth in an effort to prevent them from taking the same turbulent path to adulthood that he did.

He recalls how, during his youth, he wanted to belong to a crew and be the “tough guy [with] the bravado.”

Calendino says that life in a gang was very different decades ago, when it was centred around “rumbles, baseball bats, [and] chains … opposed to what we’re dealing with in today’s era of guns and kids dying.”

He describes the “gradual escalation” that led people he grew up with to eventually became members of the Hells Angels. Calendino ultimately followed their lead, living as a full-patch member of the notorious biker gang for nearly 10 years.

During that time, Calendino racked up numerous drug, weapons, and assault charges while also developing a drug addiction. He says that the club warned him multiple times regarding his reckless and violent behavior until they kicked him out of the Hells Angels in 2005.

“After I got kicked out, I spiraled deeper into addiction … and I ended up homeless with nothing left,” he says.

Kevin Torvik, a man Calendino grew up with, ironically wound up becoming a police officer on a biker gang task force. Calendino was eventually arrested for selling $10 worth of crack cocaine to an undercover police officer. Torvik had attempted several times to rescue him from rock bottom, but Calendino says it was this event that finally made him listen.

Following his release from prison, Calendino co-founded the Yo Bro Yo Girl Youth Initiative. He struggled to get the organization off the ground but was aided by a woman named Brenda, who is now his wife. Having worked as the high incident coordinator for the Chilliwack School District, she brought two decades of experience working with at-risk youth with her. Combining their skills and experience, the pair succeeded in bringing Yo Bro Yo Girl to fruition in 2009.

“I never wanted to see a kid go through what I was going through,” says Calendino.

Yo Bro Yo Girl is a gang and drug prevention organization which works with various school districts across Vancouver, Surrey, and Chilliwack. It provides curriculums, recreational activities, community outreach, sexual consent awareness, and what Calendino calls a “critical dialogue with youths” about their lifestyles for approximately 1,000 students each year.

Another facet of the program is that senior members of Yo Bro Yo Girl who were personally helped by the group go on to mentor younger students. The organization’s website says that the mentors, “connect with at-risk youth to ensure that there’s always someone around who knows exactly how they feel.”

Greater Vancouver’s gang problem has plagued the city for more than a decade. Calendino believes that society has not adequately taught young people how to avoid a life of drugs and gangs.

“[Gang violence] is not only a B.C. problem. This is a national epidemic,” he says. “I believe that we have not prepared our youth with proper education, giving them the tools in their toolbox to understand if they go down this road that the end result will be death, incarceration, and addiction.”