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A life transformed

He had to hurt people before they hurt him, to prove who he was. He got high from smashing people’s faces in.

John was 14 years old when he first started smoking drugs, 15 when he joined a gang, and was kicked out of five schools by the time he was 16.

By age 27, married with a baby boy, he was lured into working for the local gang kingpin. The money and power was worth the danger and fear, he thought.

Indeed, he gained power, rising through the gangster ranks.

Always looking over his shoulder, he constantly feared for his life and those of his wife and young son. True fear, he learned, was the sound of a bullet whistling past his head.

John is the main character in Let Me Up, a gritty play presented to students Surrey’s Queen Elizabeth Secondary last week. But the main character and his drug-fuelled, violent, frightening journey isn’t entirely fictional.

The drama is based on the life of Joe Calendino, a former full-patch member of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club.

Like John in the play, Calendino was on top of the gang world, trafficking drugs, raking in big bucks and living the high life.

Until his so-called friends turfed him.

He got deep into drugs himself, snorting cocaine, further alienating his family and finally hitting bottom. Crack-addicted and hovering at a gaunt 140 pounds, Calendino was killing himself.

It was then Const. Kevin Torvik came into his life. A member of the Vancouver Police Department, it certainly wasn’t the first time the two men had met. With Torvik’s work in gang and drug units, he had crossed paths with law-scoffing Calendino before.

But they also had something else in common: they had both attended Templeton Secondary in Vancouver. It was that connection that made the difference.

Torvik saw him not just as a criminal, but as a guy he went to school with. And when Calendino decided to clean up and turn his life around, his former classmate was there to help with the difficult journey.

After a painful drug withdrawal and rehabilitation process, the recovering addict returned to his old high school, determined to help youth make better choices than he had.

Closely supervised, he began working with his former drama teacher and some of the school’s boys, mentoring them and giving advice.

That was nearly four years ago.

Today, Calendino works with several schools in the Lower Mainland, including in Surrey. He’s been connected with kids at Queen Elizabeth for three years and for the past year, has been working with boys at Kwantlen Park Secondary and the Newton Learning Centre.

He targets not just at-risk teens, but all kids, from straight-A students to those already involved with drugs and crime.

“We identify with all youth. We’re finding that the more kids we can get involved... the better off they will all be,” the pony-tailed Calendino says.

The play Let Me Up has now been presented in several schools – and the former gangster is always there with Torvik to talk to students and answer questions afterwards.

“You need to identify when you come to that fork in the road,” Calendino told the Grade 9 students at QE last week, “and take the right road.”

When someone asks what the scariest moment in his life was, he hesitates, obviously unable to pin his answer to just one moment in his violence-riddled past.

“Where I’ve been, I’ve seen the devil. I’ve walked with the devil.”

As the high school presentation wraps up, he calls members of his Yo Bro youth group to the stage. It’s a cluster of young men varying in age, size, and ethnicity.

Calendino looks at them proudly, getting emotional as he motions toward the teens.

He’s got a bigger gang now than he ever had when he was involved with drugs and crime, he says.

“I’d much rather have these guys watching my back than anyone in my past.”

sreynolds@surreyleader.ocm

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