Former Hells Angel Joe Calendino shares his struggles with drug addiction, recovery, and youth awareness

You know you have to turn your life around when a notorious biker gang tells you your behaviour is too “unpredictable and unacceptable.” It happened to former Hells Angel member Joe Calendino, a man who has now pledged his life to preventing adolescent drug and gang involvement.

To Hell and Back: A Former Hells Angel story of Recovery and Redemption, tells his story.

The story is written by both Calendino and his former high school counselor Gary Little. Little wrote the narrative structure while Calendino’s thoughts about the events are quoted in italics.

“I wanted to keep some distance from myself and the book because this is Joe’s story,” Little says. “I went out and interviewed a lot of different people about what has happened in Joe’s life. You know, cops who chased him back in the day.”

The story begins with Calendino learning and dealing with the death of his best friend and Hells Angels mentor, Donny Rowling. 

“He was Joe’s sponsor for the Hells Angels and it was a real dramatic moment for Joe when Donny was sadly shot and killed in Vancouver,” Little says. “From that point, I move back chronologically to a point where we reconnect with Joe being a member of the Hells Angels and his descent into the world of drug addiction.”

Drugs and gang violence had a unique way of finding Calendino in the early ‘80s. He started using drugs at 14 and became involved with gangs. During his high school years in East Vancouver, Calendino would get into fights constantly, making sure he was the toughest guy around.

“I was fighting all the time,” Calendino says. “I loved the whole, ‘Ding, ding, ding, round one here we go’ kind of scenario. Anybody who enters that kind of lifestyle, they’re the ones who walk directly into the fire.”

That mentality stuck with Calendino after graduation and eventually lead to him joining the Hells Angels, going as far to becoming a full patch member in the British Columbia Nomads chapter. 

“At the end of the day, it’s kind of like being a rockstar or a movie star,” Calendino says. “I wanted to be the elite of the elite in that world. For me, growing up in my younger years, I identified with that lifestyle. I loved the rock and roll, the Harleys, the power. There’s a lot of things that lured me in, but it was my choice.”

Calendino was in the Hells Angels B.C. Nomads chapter as a “one percenter,” (a term coined by outlaw motorcyclists who viewed themselves as living outside the boundaries favoured by 99 percent of society) for three years.

This got him into using and selling various drugs. Crack cocaine, oxycontin, GHB, and other opioids soon replaced his biker brothers and led him into a downward spiral as a full-blown drug addict.

He had multiple fights as a member, including one in a Kelowna casino that caused a “media circus,” getting him kicked out of the Hells Angels. It saved Calendino’s life.

“I’d be dead if things stayed the way they were. There’s no ‘ifs ands or buts’ on that one. It could have been from a fight or drugs, but I would have died,” Calendino says.

Calendino was arrested shortly after for trying to sell a $10 rock of cocaine to an undercover officer.

After going through withdrawal on a prison cell floor, Calendino vowed that he would dedicate his life to making sure kids would never have to experience what he had. He eventually founded Vancouver’s Yo Bro Yo Girl Youth Initiative, a program designed to strengthen the resiliency of at-risk youth’s involvement in gang affiliation, drug use, and violence.

“Our model from day one is prevention and early intervention,” Calendino says. “We live in a space where working with kids is critical. As an organization, even though we’ve tried so hard, we’ve had to bury a few kids over the last couple of years because of addiction, beatings, gang violence. That’s hard you know? When you have to look into a coffin with a child in it.”

Both Little and Calendino hope the book is not only an interesting read for the audience but also a tool for educators.

“Ultimately, we are relying on a whole confluence of people who help these kids decide what path to take,” Little says. “Hopefully Joe’s story will influence them to make the right one.”

Thu., Oct. 5 (7 pm)
To Hell and Back book launch and signing
Audreys Books Ltd.