October 18, 2017

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Former B.C. gang member comes clean

To Hell and Back is the unlikely story of Joe Calendino, a former member of the Hells Angels outlaw motorcycle gang who founded the Yo Bro Yo Girl Youth Initiative, which provides support and positive alternatives to at-risk youth in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland.

Co-authored by Calendino and Gary Little, one of Calendino’s former high school teachers, To Hell and Back chronicles Calendino’s life from his upbringing in a tight-knit Italian-Canadian family in Vancouver’s hardscrabble East Side and his early success as a businessman to his time as an outlaw biker, his expulsion from the Hells Angels, his descent into hardcore drug addiction and, finally, his redemption and evolution into a positive role model for youth and a leader in the community.

The first half of To Hell and Back is a compelling look into a wayward and violent youth who, despite obvious gifts of leadership and charisma, is seemingly incapable of making decisions that will lead him anywhere other than into trouble. After surprising everyone by earning his high school diploma, Calendino has his success derailed by his vow to fulfil the goal of a deceased friend who wanted to become a Hells Angel.

While omitting specific details of the criminal acts Calendino committed as a biker — whether this is to protect Calendino from repercussions for his criminal past or to avoid glamorizing the criminal lifestyle (or both) is not stated — enough of his life in the Hells Angels is revealed to give readers a good idea how bad a dude he was before getting kicked out of the gang for drawing negative attention to it after his involvement in a bar fight in Kelowna, B.C.

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To Hell and Back is the unlikely story of Joe Calendino, a former member of the Hells Angels outlaw motorcycle gang who founded the Yo Bro Yo Girl Youth Initiative, which provides support and positive alternatives to at-risk youth in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland.

Co-authored by Calendino and Gary Little, one of Calendino’s former high school teachers, To Hell and Back chronicles Calendino’s life from his upbringing in a tight-knit Italian-Canadian family in Vancouver’s hardscrabble East Side and his early success as a businessman to his time as an outlaw biker, his expulsion from the Hells Angels, his descent into hardcore drug addiction and, finally, his redemption and evolution into a positive role model for youth and a leader in the community.

The first half of To Hell and Back is a compelling look into a wayward and violent youth who, despite obvious gifts of leadership and charisma, is seemingly incapable of making decisions that will lead him anywhere other than into trouble. After surprising everyone by earning his high school diploma, Calendino has his success derailed by his vow to fulfil the goal of a deceased friend who wanted to become a Hells Angel.

While omitting specific details of the criminal acts Calendino committed as a biker — whether this is to protect Calendino from repercussions for his criminal past or to avoid glamorizing the criminal lifestyle (or both) is not stated — enough of his life in the Hells Angels is revealed to give readers a good idea how bad a dude he was before getting kicked out of the gang for drawing negative attention to it after his involvement in a bar fight in Kelowna, B.C.

Where To Hell and Back is rich in detail is its description of Calendino’s descent into drug addiction after his expulsion from the Hells Angels and his realization he not only needed to change his life, but that he wanted to help youngsters avoid following the same path that had left him addicted and emaciated in a jail cell.

While the first half of To Hell and Back keeps the reader’s attention with its sordid tales of Calendino the street fighter, Calendino the outlaw and Calendino the junkie, the second half is less compelling, in part because the story of a guy getting clean and doing the right thing has far less voyeuristic appeal than the story of a criminal running wild on the streets, a lifestyle which most people can only imagine.

While the story of Calendino getting straight and dedicating himself to establish a program to help at-risk youth is inspiring in its own right, the telling of the story suffers from redundancy and a less-than-objective storyteller.

Little, the former high school teacher, was one of the people who, as a Vancouver School Board administrator, worked closely with Calendino to help him get his message into schools and connect with the youngsters he helps. As such, the second half of the book often reads like an overly long promotional brochure for the Yo Bro Yo Girl Youth Initiative as opposed to an objective look at the good work of a seemingly incorrigible thug who hit rock bottom, turned his life around and is now intent on making the world a better place.

While To Hell and Back drops off considerably in its second half, the two halves come together to tell a story that illustrates how, given the right circumstances, someone who seems destined for jail or an early grave can have a positive effect on society.

Gilbert Gregory is a Free Press copy editor.

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