For decades, José Villaruel, 78, was a substitute teacher in Fontana, California, 50 miles west of Los Angeles, where he was affectionately known in schools as “Mr. V.” But all of that changed in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. After schools pivoted to distance learning, the substitute teacher was out of work.
Villaruel was forced to retire and live off his social security check, but he had debts and sent a large portion of his money to Mexico to pay for care for his sick wife. To make ends meet, Villaruel was forced to live in his blue Thunderbird until his fortunes improved. But he had a strong hope they would.
Around that time, Steven Nava began to notice someone sleeping in their car every morning in a parking lot near his home.
"I noticed that he had all of his belongings in his car, and that's when I realized he was homeless," Nava told NBC Los Angeles. He also noticed that the man living in his car was his former substitute teacher, Mr. V.
Once Nava made the connection, he gave him $300 to stay in a hotel room for a few nights.
"I had a mission to help the teacher who was going through a difficult time during the pandemic,” he said. "I spoke to Mr. V., and he told me that the only source of income was a monthly Social Security check and that most of that money was sent to his wife who is very ill in Mexico."
Knowing that Villaruel needed more help, Nava put together a GoFundMe fundraiser for him and posted about it on social media.
TWITTER FRIENDS PLEASE HELP! every morning/ night I\u2019ve always noticed this older man that would stay out in his car constantly at this parking lot near my house even when the weather was bad. He looked familiar and I\u2019m sure alot of y\u2019all have had him as a substitute in Fontana...pic.twitter.com/3hFpIAOMCO— steven (@steven) 1615010779
..I confronted him about it and asked what his situation was, so turns out he’s gone homeless since the whole pandemic hit and he’s been struggling getting back to his feet. His car is really old and that’s where he’s been staying for the past year. I felt like the need to help..— steven (@stevennava_) March 6, 2021
..so that day I decided to give him $300 to help with his necessities and situation. He was overwhelmed and in disbelief about was I gave him, he’s was so happy and he thanked me and gave me a hug as he had a tear running down his face. But I’m still determined to do MORE..— steven (@stevennava_) March 6, 2021
..and so with that I come to the twitter community and ask for help in raising money to help him out. I know if we can all pitch in even $1 it will go a long ways. So pls share and hopefully lets make this happen. Go fund me will be up soon and ALL donations will be given to Mr.V— steven (@stevennava_) March 6, 2021
usually hangs out here really early in the AM is when I catch him before work, but god bless to all who can help and spread the word! pic.twitter.com/oVmqfouDUv— steven (@stevennava_) March 6, 2021
Nava’s tweets quickly went viral and he raised $27,000 for his friend. On Villaruel’s 77th birthday, Nava, with the help of a local news station and former students, surprised him with a check for $27,000. "Everybody always recognized him because when he went into the classroom he always had just such good energy," Melissa Lopez, a former student of Mr. V.'s, told Fox 11 at the ceremony.
After the initial fundraiser ended, Nava started a second fundraiser that earned $30,000 more for Villaruel.
"It is an experience of my life that will be kept for the rest of my life. I carry it in my heart," Villaruel said. "I felt that something was going to happen, that things were going to change, and it happened suddenly when I least expected it.
“I tell the students when they have a project, keep going despite the difficulties, don't give up. Do not give up. Don't quit." Mr. V. didn’t quit and his students didn’t give up on him.
update- THANK YOU! we’ve been busy with interviews, NEW YT VID TONIGHT 6PM PST| LINK IN BIO GO SUB! #fyp #foryoupage #thankyou #mrv
The story of Nava and Mr. V. is a powerful example of the effect that a teacher—even a substitute—can have on their students. No one deserves to be without a home, especially those who spent decades educating children.
In September 2021, Nava revealed that thanks to all the help, Mr. V. was able to return to his family in Puebla, Mexico. “So long friend,'' he wrote on a TikTok video. “Keep spreading positivity.”
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