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Substitute teacher living in his car gets birthday surprise of $27,000 from former student who recognizes him on street

"I had a mission to help the teacher who was going through a difficult time during the pandemic," the former student said.

Substitute teacher living in his car gets birthday surprise of $27,000 from former student who recognizes him on street
Cover Image Source: GoFundMe

Steven Nava was heading to work at around 5 am one day earlier this month when he noticed a man in the parking lot of the nearby senior center going through the trunk of his car. It was the same person he'd been seeing sleeping inside the car for weeks. "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 eventually realized that it was his former substitute high school teacher, José Villarruel — aka Mr. V — who taught him at Fontana High School.



Speaking to CNN, Nava said he had always remembered Villarruel. "He really stuck to me just because of the way he was so nice around his students. He'd ask how your day would go, did you eat, just small little details like that. He'd be really, really funny when he took attendance." It took him a few days to work up the courage, but Nava went back to the parking lot to find Villarruel again. He asked him about his situation and learned that Mr. V had stopped working once the schools went to virtual sessions last year. Villarruel has reportedly lived in his car for the past eight years because he was sending most of his income to his wife, children, and extended family in Mexico.








Since there was no longer a need for substitute teachers when the pandemic started and classes went to remote learning, he applied to get his retirement funds so he could have some income. Nava had found him at a time when he was struggling. Once Nava spoke to Villarruel and realized the connection, he insisted on giving his former teacher the money he had on him, which happened to be $300. "He gave me this big old smile and said, 'Thank you so much,'" Nava recalled. "He came over to give me a hug and as he was hugging me, I saw a little tear run down his face."




It was then that the 21-year-old told him, "I'm going to get you out of this situation, one way or another. I'm going to find a way," 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." Determined to get his former teacher through this trying time, Nava took to Twitter to ask his community for help and started a GoFundMe. "Mr. V was a great, funny, and helpful educator and substitute teacher in the Fontana Unified School District," he wrote. "He's struggled with getting back on his feet after the pandemic hit and has been living in his car ever since, despite the brutal weather and living conditions. This fundraiser is to help him out financially and (to get him) back to normal life."




The campaign earned $5,000 in a matter of hours, he said, and by the next day, a TikTok video he made about Villarruel — which has now been viewed 1.7 million times — helped bring the donations up to $27,000. "Teachers play a huge part in our lives," Nava said. "I felt like I needed to repay the favor." He presented the check to Mr. V on his 77th birthday last week at a surprise party with other former students who came to celebrate. "You're sort of just baffled when you find out that one of your teachers is just homeless," Nava said. "Seeing him living and going through that struggle pretty much made me want to do this. He helped us with our futures and being the person we are today, so I wanted to help him and make sure he's in a situation where he doesn't have to worry anymore."




Villarruel's story eventually reached the San Bernardino County Sheriffs Department, which then helped him in getting a motel voucher on March 10. Mike Jones, deputy sheriff of Homeless Outreach and Proactive Enforcement (HOPE) with the county, explained that this will give Villarruel a place to stay for a month while longer-term housing is arranged. "Our team works collaboratively across the county with service providers and county agencies to help people like Mr. Villarruel on a daily basis," he said in a statement. "It's these efforts that help the most vulnerable population of our community move beyond homeless."




Meanwhile, Villarruel is still trying to come to terms with his new reality and plans to take an extended trip to Mexico so he can see his family. "It is an experience of my life that will be kept for the rest of my life. I carry it in my heart. I felt that something was going to happen, that things were going to change, and it happened suddenly when I least expected it," he said. "It's a great feeling to have this change and I still have to adapt to it so I can make the best of it. It was unexpected but I accept it with an open heart and I'm ready for whatever comes next. I know good things will come."

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