The school of ‘hard knocks’ in Chilliwack

Yo Bro Yo Girl program making a difference in Chilliwack schools, in the classroom and beyond

Joe Calendino (centre) has a black belt in judo and jiu jitsu

Joe Calendino (centre) has a black belt in judo and jiu jitsu

Kids don’t grow up covered in bubble wrap.

They witness violence, sometimes experiencing it firsthand at a very young age. They are exposed to alcohol consumption, offered deadly drugs, targeted for sexual advances, and even coerced into gang activity.

And it does seem to be happening more and more.

But there are people out there trying to intervene in these young people’s lives before they run off the rails. People like Joe Calendino, who has been running his Yo Bro Yo Girl group in select Chilliwack schools for  three years now.

At a recent session at the Education Centre, a group of teens sit and stand in the weight room on the outer edges of the floor mats. They’re stretching, warming up to learn self-defence moves, but mostly they’re listening to what Calendino has to say.

“The average age of a shooter is now between 17 and 22,” he tells them, and there have been about 60 shootings already this year in the Lower Mainland.

And when they’re asked how many of them have witnessed an overdose, or know someone who has overdosed, five of the 10 raise their hands.

“The problem is so huge,” one says. “It’s starting to affect everybody.”

They all have stories they could share, and a few of them do. They’re in the group to learn how to take back control of their lives, now and into the future. They listen patiently to Calendino, and his partner Brandon Robertson, because they’ve both been where nobody sets out to go.

Calendino was a drug addict and full patch Hell’s Angel member at one time in his life, and Robertson was a drug addict living a life of crime. Robertson tells the kids his journey began with an injury that led him to being on oxycontin. When his doctors took him off the drug, he was sicker than he’d ever been.

“The sickness, the pain, was too much, and I started to take heroin,” he says. “It’s crazy how quickly it becomes a habit.”

And just as dangerous as the drugs themselves, are some drug addicts. The teens here know this. One mentions he’s been jumped. Another says she worries when people near her are high, and not acting themselves. Others admit that when they’re doing drugs at a party, they’re just not thinking about the dangers.

“You’re too focused on getting high,” the student says.

It’s information that may shock some adults, but in a Yo Bro Yo Girl session, this type of brutal honesty is encouraged. It’s no secret what kids are up to, after all, and “the stats speak for themselves,” Calendino says.

But the kids are getting anxious from all the talk and they’re ready to move around the room.

Calendino leads them through a warm up, teaching them basic qigong moves. They lift their arms, breathe, and lower them again.

“Take that one breath before you’re about to make that bad decision, and you will calm down. I promise you,” he tells them.

They continue to move slowly and carefully, stretching, breathing, focusing. They know the good stuff is coming, and within a few minutes they’re rewarded for their patience.

Calendino and Robertson demonstrate the first self-defence move of the session, and the kids are paired up to try it out. The attacker reaches out to grab the victim, and is immobilized when the victim aims for the eyes, the neck, and the arms. In a split second it seems impossible, but when Calendino and Robertson slow down, the kids perfect the move with ease.

They practice, over and over. They will practice this move, and countless others, so that if the need ever arises they can protect themselves.

“This is not a UFC program,” Calendino tells them. “This is not about that. Your objective is to never engage in a fight.”

Off to the side, two girls practice a flip from a laying down position. They make it look easy.

“My girls don’t get assaulted,” Calendino says. He hopes that none of them become the 1 in 3 women who have been victims of sexual assault.

But all the moves aside, it’s the self confidence and sense of belonging that keep the kids moving forward in life. And that’s a slow but rewarding process, he says. There are about 500 students in Yo Bro Yo Girl programs, largely in Surrey but also here in Chilliwack. So far, the Ed Centre and CHANCE are on board with Calendino, but there could be more involvement from other schools in the future.

The program is free for schools, as the not-for-profit is funded through donors in the private sector.

It was an easy choice for Chuck Lawson, principal of alternate education, to get involved.

“This is about more than just taking a class once a week,” he says. “It’s about a connection that happens. There’s a difference that goes beyond the classroom. Yo Bro is a part of the fabric of the school now.”

There are kids who would never miss a day when a class was planned, and others who just try it out a few times and bow out. The hope is that kids will graduate out of the program and turn around to give back.

One student, Ben Forde, has graduated and come back to volunteer. It’s given them hope that the program will flourish.

“And we have more than one ‘Ben,'” Calendino says.

The Ed Centre was the pilot school for Chilliwack, and they hope to grow into the mainstream schools as well.