True grit

– Let Me Up!, a gritty look at the world of gang violence and addiction, May 26-28 at 7 p.m. at Sutherland secondary. Free. Tickets:

When Joe Calendino talks, youth listen.

A former full-patch member of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club — Nomads chapter — he’s also overcome addiction. Working with staff at his old high school, Vancouver’s Templeton secondary, the 44-year-old Surrey resident turned his life around and now shares his personal story of downward spiral, recovery and redemption in an effort to inspire and empower youth to cope positively with peer pressure.

Calendino is the founder of the Yo Bro Youth Initiative, a prevention-based program focused on helping youth say “no” and make safe and healthy choices for the benefit of themselves, their families and communities. Through speaking engagements, martial arts programs, a classroom curriculum, and ongoing work with youth groups, he’s interacted with thousands of both at-risk and general population students throughout the Lower Mainland.

Let Me Up!, a play inspired by his life, is being presented at North Vancouver’s Sutherland secondary this week. Students from North and West Vancouver will attend two matinees. Students, parents, teachers and other community members are invited to attend free evening performances, May 26-28 at 7 p.m.

Prior to a rehearsal Tuesday at the North Shore high school, Calendino offers an emotional response when asked about the degree of change he’s experienced in such a short period of time.

“Every day I wake up to the perfect day. When you really think about it, I get to walk into the schools and interact with youth in a way that could possibly. . . .” he breaks off. “When you start to change their lives I don’t think there’s any bigger reward.”

Calendino’s life took a turn at age 14 when he started making bad choices. A recreational street fighter, he also smoked weed and drank on the weekends. Following completion of high school, his life seemed as if it was on track, seeing him operate a chain of cell phone stores for 10 years.

“Then I started to identify with that lifestyle again,” he says. “It took one second, one moment, and I was right back there again. There went my journey.”

In the years that followed, Calendino lived a gang lifestyle — he was around the Hells Angels for 10 years and was a full-patch member for three — and fell deeper into addiction. He was asked to leave the club in 2005, the result of his addiction as well as a violent incident at a Kelowna casino. His dependency worsened, mainly due to crack cocaine, amphetamines and alcohol, until finally he realized it was time to make a change.

“It was rock bottom for me about four years ago. I’m going on year four now,” he says of his sobriety.

Calendino’s success in rebuilding his life has been made possible through the support of an entire community. Among those playing an integral role is Vancouver police department Const. Kevin Torvik. Friends in high school, Calendino and Torvik were reunited as adults through Calendino’s downward spiral and troubles with the law.

“He was there to arrest me . . . but when he heard my life was falling apart and so on, he took off the uniform and became that guy I went to high school with,” says Calendino.

Torvik suggested Calendino get in contact with staff at their alma mater, Templeton secondary, specifically his mentor Jim Crescenzo, a longtime film and theatre teacher. Crescenzo had taken a particular interest in Calendino as a student. Feeling he had potential, the educator reached out.

“That was my goal, was to see if I could harness that energy into something positive,” says Crescenzo.

While Crescenzo couldn’t stop Calendino from fighting, he was successful in getting him involved in the school community, encouraging him to join the theatre program as a member of the technical crew. That move inspired Calendino’s similar tough-guy peers to follow suit.

“When Joe graduated, he gave me a picture of himself at grad with him and me together and it was a beautiful shot,” says Crescenzo, adding he remembers thinking Calendino was on the right path.

The pair stayed connected for a number of years though eventually lost touch due to Calendino’s immersion in his new lifestyle.

Four years ago, hearing Calendino was interested in helping kids, Crescenzo agreed to meet with him. Taking one look at him, he knew he had to do something. Calendino, once a robust and energetic teenager had dropped to a mere 147 pounds and shook uncontrollably.

“I looked at him and I just thought, what if this was my son? What if this was my kid? Would I want somebody to shut the last door on him? All of a sudden I felt this incredible responsibility not as a teacher, not as a friend, but just as a human being. He kind of looked at me, with his eyes, and that was it, I was locked in,” says Crescenzo.

Talking to Torvik and Templeton vice-principal Walter Mustapich, they decided to help Calendino not only get his life back on track, but help him realize his dream of helping local youth.

In the early days, they received a number of inquiries from community members about their motivation.

“We don’t care what he did in his past,” says Crescenzo. “We don’t care what his motorcycle club did, all we care about is where he is now and where he wants to go and can we use this vessel to help motivate and inspire young people to say ‘No’ to any kind of gang affiliation or to any kind of drugs?”

Once Calendino was sober and had resumed a healthy weight, they started small, bringing him in to address students, initially members of the Boys Club, a mentorship program for at-risk males, run by Crescenzo and Mustapich.

Immediately it was clear they were on to something.

“When Jim or I speak to (Boys Club members) about good behavior or what constitutes being a good man, respecting women, respecting your family, giving back to your community, things like that, they expect us to say that. . . .” says Mustapich, a West Vancouver resident. “In walks Al Capone and he’s telling them to stay away from drugs and gangs and it was like the alpha dog had walked in. It was like boom! They all turned and they all listened.”

Calendino feels his perspective is relatable.

“I come in and I just look at them and go, ‘Yo bro. How you feelin’ today my man?’ and it’s a different tone, it’s a different essence and they feel like they belong,” he says.

When asked about having a new gang, Calendino talks about sending young people the right message by re-defining the word. “I tell them, if we’re going to identify with that word, let’s identify with being a gang of good men,” he says. “A gang of people that are going to go out and make a difference in the community. A gang of boys that are always doing the right thing within the education system. I instill the education system to them, it’s priority No. 1.”

Crescenzo and Mustapich have continued to support Calendino, both from a personal and professional standpoint, connecting him with other educators and administrators in the Lower Mainland as well as with funding resources to finance his work. Drawing on Crescenzo’s theatre experience and Mustapich’s previous career in the film industry, they’ve also helped with the creation of Let Me Up!, a play written by Peter Grasso, and serve as executive producers. The work is loosely based on Calendino’s story and offers a generalized look at gang life.

“The story is one of family, one of addiction, one of power, one of discovery and one of, we like to say, the resurrection of a man, the rebuilding of a man,” says Mustapich.

The 60-minute production, performed by professional actors, is intended to further disseminate the Yo Bro Youth Initiative’s positive message as well as act as a forum for discussion.

While it’s been a lot of hard work, it’s been well-worth the effort, says Mustapich.

“I firmly believe we’ve changed a few lives through this. For sure, we’ve changed Joe’s life,” says Mustapich.

Let Me Up! premiered at Templeton in December 2010 and a number of North and West Vancouver students were in attendance.

It’s since been remounted in Surrey and those involved are excited for it to make its North Shore debut.

It’s being presented for free, thanks to the support of donors. Following the performances, Calendino, Torvik and representatives of the West Vancouver police department and North Vancouver RCMP will take the stage, each sharing their perspective on the issues brought to light.

Linda Buchanan, North Vancouver school district trustee, attended Let Me Up!’s premiere and immediately knew she wanted to see it presented on the North Shore.

“I was invited to see the play from Walter back in December and really felt that it was just a really powerful, creative way to get the message out to students and parents, and the broader community,” she says. “The great thing about it is Jimmy and Walter are both educators so there’s that educational component and I think it’s a powerful way to engage kids.”

The work also addresses the necessity of a community response, important in her mind, as by profession, Buchanan is a public health nurse.

“When we’re looking at these ideas, which are community issues, they’re not school issues, they’re community issues, I think it’s a great way to bring all the players in together and use that as a springboard for conversation, typically between parents and youth,” she says.

After attending the Templeton premiere, Buchanan spoke to Jeremy Church, vice-principal of alternative programs for the North Vancouver school district. Both agreed it would be a good fit for the North Shore, picking up on some other prevention work the district and community partners have been doing, particularly around alcohol.

“Coming from the alternative end of things, I’ve put on lots of presentations and productions about these topics because I recognize that they are topics that are relevant to our students. . . .,” says Church. “Sometimes people don’t want to talk about it because it doesn’t affect them in their community, but I think through back-channels or other ways it affects all of us: like what happens to some of us, happens to all of us.”

Calendino is proud of how well-received his work has been and its positive impact on Lower Mainland youth as well as his own life. Through Torvik, he’s the current subject of a future Odd Squad Productions Society documentary. He hopes to continue to grow the Yo Bro Youth Initiative and that it can one day be modelled elsewhere. “We have to create more opportunities for people like Joe,” he says.

No matter what the medium and no matter if he’s in a classroom, a theatre, a dojo, or on the street, Calendino remains firm on his message to youth: “The one thing that I always hope that they take away with my messaging is that that one second, one moment in your life that takes you on a journey, to a) death, b) incarceration or c) into a world of addiction, that they’re able to say right then and there, ‘No.’ Also, that they start to empower other people to start saying ‘No.'”

© Copyright (c) North Shore News

Read more: