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Education

Former teacher left homeless by the pandemic got a big lift after being recognized by a student

steven nava, hose villaruel, homeless teacher

Steven Nava hugs his former teacher, José Villaruel.

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.

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.

@stevennava_

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.”

All illustrations are provided by Soosh and used with permission.

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