Former Hells Angel says early intervention key to curbing youth gun violence

Joe Calendino spent a decade as a Hells Angels member. Now he mentors young people on Vancouver's Lower Mainland to keep them away from dangerous lifestyles.

'If we have less kids getting actively involved in that lifestyle, we will have ... less gangsters with guns'

Joe Calendino is the executive director and co-founder of Yo Bro, Yo Girl Youth Initiative. (Yo Bro, Yo Girl Youth Initiative)
Listen8:34

Joe Calendino knows the life of gangs and crime all too well.

After spending a decade as a member of the Hells Angels, he now works as a youth advocate in British Columbia.

On Sunday, Cross Country Checkup asked Canadians if, in the wake of a deadly mass shooting in Toronto's Danforth neighbourhood, it's time to ban handguns.

Calendino said that an outright ban on handguns will not address the violence in Canadian cities. The better approach, he says, is to proactively address the dangerous lifestyles that people adopt before committing crimes — a lifestyle he is working to steer kids away from through a program he co-founded called Yo Bro, Yo Girl Youth Initiative.

Calendino spoke with Checkup host Duncan McCue about how programs like his can help reduce violence and promote safer cities.

Yo Bro, Yo Girl Youth Initiative participants take a picture after activities at a gym with Calendino, top right. (Yo Bro, Yo Girl Youth Initiative)

We just spoke with the Minister of Public Safety and he says that the government is considering the idea to ban handguns. What do you think of that?

It's kind of a double-edged sword. There are those that possess handguns and are very responsible people with handguns.

Then there are those that are a primary concern; that live in a certain lifestyle and possess handguns. So, where do we find a happy medium here?

Our laws are very stringent when it comes to handguns, and if we do ban handguns, what are the laws that are going to support that?

You're always on, what we call, the gerbil wheel in the charitable world. You're always looking for those donors.- Joe Calendino on funding violence prevention programs

You talk about the raging gun violence in parts of the Lower Mainland. It seems that there are shootings regularly in many parts of the Fraser Valley at this point. Knowing what's happening in your neighbourhood, what needs to happen to make the streets safer?

Well for us at Yo Bro, Yo Girl Youth Initiative, it's all about education and prevention. If we keep these kids away from that lifestyle, in turn what does that mean to public safety in society?

Well, if we have less kids getting actively involved in that lifestyle, we will have less kids or less gangsters with guns in their hands.

What's the most important thing that you try to give those kids in terms of trying to dissuade them away from a life of violent crime?

It's education, awareness, connecting them to healthy, positive role models, making sure that they're able to communicate with a peer, an adult, somebody that can support with that decision-making process and get them away from making that bad decision.

For Yo Bro, Yo Girl, it is to keep the kids informed, keep them educated, make them understand what that lifestyle looks like and always being there to listen and communicate with our youth.

Youth participate in a workshop hosted by Yo Bro, Yo Girl Youth Initiative. (Yo Bro, Yo Girl Youth Initiative)

How effective is your program? Do you have any success stories you can share with us?

We have a number of success stories. A number of our young boys and girls are now going into policing, military and teaching. And these are kids that at one time were at risk.

One of the young boys [in the program] grew up in the lower east side of Vancouver. His brother was a prolific car thief who ended up going to jail for attempted murder and he had a sister who was a drug addict. His mom didn't do very well.

Today, this young boy has had zero police contact, has graduated high school, has moved on to post-secondary and is also working part-time.

There are a number of gang intervention programs in the Toronto area. Taking Action to Achieve Growth Success, or TAAGS, is running out of funding on Aug. 31 and will probably close down.

How easy is it to get funding for Yo Bro Yo Girl?

It's never easy. You're always on, what we call, the gerbil wheel in the charitable world. You're always looking for those donors. You've got to keep people engaged to your programs, your mission, vision, purpose.

For us, we're pretty fortunate because we're very active within the schools. We're part of Surrey's Public Safety Strategy with the mayor. Also, we're working fast and furious within Delta school district.

So staying connected to the schools, making sure you're on top of your donors. If we're having these issues in Toronto, then the public has to be more actively involved to support programs like that program in Toronto.

Written by Samraweet Yohannes. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview, click listen above.