Stories of resilience and hope
Lives changed by Yo Bro | Yo Girl Youth Initiative
As an outlaw biker living on the fringes of society Joe Calendino travelled the world, relishing the dangerous glamour of the Hells Angels’ lifestyle, even committing himself to an elite chapter in the organization: the Nomads Motorcycle Club or “one percenters.”
But his life soon spiralled into a world of drugs and debt. A tight noose of addiction began to rule. Eventually frustrated by Joe’s recklessness, the Hells Angels stripped him of membership. In desperation, Joe spent months in rat-infested crack houses, combing back alleys for anything that might help him get his next fix.
Finding himself on the cusp of death, he gained the support of an unlikely ally, Officer Kevin Torvik, a former high-school buddy on a very different path. Joe not only recovered but thrived and redefined himself as a community youth leader, eventually winning the Courage to Come Back Award given to individuals who give back after overcoming tremendous adversity.
Today Joe is the Co-founder and Executive Director of Yo Bro | Yo Girl Youth Initiative, an organization grounded in building meaningful and life-changing relationships with our communities most at-risk youth. Through presentation, after-school activities and one-one-one mentorship, Yo Bro | Yo Girl is keeping youth safe and off the streets.
Read more of Joe’s harrowing life story in To Hell and Back, a recently published autobiography written with good friend and Yo Bro | Yo Girl board member Gary Little.
Read on to meet some of the young people Joe has helped.
“I saw bad things during the war -- things children should not see,” Dacious shares. “I remember one day being at the American Embassy with my grandmother. There was a family with small children standing about 10 feet away from me. A bomb exploded and they all died instantly. For some reason, we survived.”
Dacious was born in Liberia in 1997, literally right in the middle of back-to-back civil wars.
As a young boy -- he faced unique dangers at the hands of local rebel forces.
“The rebels kidnapped young boys to join their forces. They would go house to house looking for young boys. They came to my house one night and took my cousin. But I didn’t get taken because my mom hid me under the bed. I was only seven years old at the time.”
All the while, Dacious’ father was trying to bring him and his sisters to Canada, and in 2011 he finally succeeded. At 13-years-old, Dacious arrived in Surrey, BC . He had no friends, didn’t speak Canadian English and didn’t know where he was.
“If immigrant and refugee youth don’t get connected to the community quickly, they find themselves meeting bad friends and following people they shouldn’t,” he explains. “They become involved with gangs, get into trouble and end up walking down the total wrong life path.”
But Dacious’ teachers kept a close eye on him and got him involved in soccer and wrestling. It was through wrestling that he met Joe Calendino - Yo Bro | Yo Girl Youth Initiative’s Founder - six years ago. Joe coached Dacious in martial arts, provided him with gift cards for groceries and food. Perhaps more importantly, Joe gave him a safe place to truly belong.
Today, Dacious is actively involved in the City of Surrey’s youth programs for refugees, sits on a Committee for Canadian Council for Refugees, and is a Yo Bro | Yo Girl Mentor.
“I volunteer as a Mentor because of the life I have had before I came to Canada -- it was full of challenges and traumas. I want to give back to the young ones coming up behind me. When they listen to my story and see me succeeding and making good choices, I want them to know that they can follow my lead. I want them to know that they can overcome.”
“A few years ago, a friend of mine mentioned that she was going to this after-school martial arts club where she would also get free food,” she remembers with a smile. “It sounded like a good deal to me, so I showed up the next week.”
“At first going to YBYG was just about being on the mats doing martial arts,” she remembers. “But then it became about the family. Now, the people I count on the most in life are right here - they’re my brothers and my sisters - they’re people I look up to and some who look up to me.”
And, through life’s trials, Harneet learned - the family you choose is just as important as the one you’re given at birth.
When Harneet’s brother passed away unexpectedly a few years ago, her life flipped upside down. She needed a family to turn to - to grieve with, to be herself with, and to recover with. The friends she had made at YBYG stepped up as family and made sure she made it through intact.
“In an instant, I could have gone off the radar,” she remembers. “It would’ve been easy for me to disappear and walk away. But my family here at YBYG wouldn’t let me do that - they wouldn’t let me fall - they carried me through this.”
“A lot of other organizations come into our schools and tell us the statistics about what’s going on in our community and then they tell us not to make bad decisions,” she says. “Here at YBYG, we understand the reality on the streets, are urged to be careful and use good judgement, but then we also have the freedom to decide for ourselves.”
“And, even better, because you have a community of people you like spending time with always around, there’s a lot of space to make smart, safe and fun choices about how we’re spending our time.”