California substitute teacher living in car gets surprise $27,000 check on 77th birthday from former student
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Jose Villarruel, a beloved 77-year-old substitute teacher known as “Mr. V,” had been living in his car for the past eight years as he struggled to make ends meet.
That suddenly changed when his former student at Fontana Unified School District, Steven Nava, found him rummaging through his car early Thursday morning and stopped to ask him how he was doing.
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“That’s when he opened up to me, like, ‘well, I’ve been living in my car for a while and the pandemic just made it much worse,'” the now 21-year-old told Fox News.
With classes mostly online over the past year, Villarruel was left without a job, Nava said.
(Steven Nava and his friends with Jose "Mr. V" Villarruel at Fontana High School in Fontana, California. (Steven Nava))
However, even before the pandemic and subsequent economic recession, Villarruel hadn’t been making enough from his substituting job and was relying mainly on his Social Security to get by. Most of that money, though, would go to his family, including his sick wife, who had been living in Mexico, Nava said.
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“So I just told him, ‘you know everything’s going to be fine,'” Nava said. “‘I’m going to try to help you get through this and we’ll see what I can do.'”
So, he raised $27,000 to help Villarruel pay off his debts and set him up on a path to eventually go back home to his family in Mexico.
Jose "Mr. V" Villarruel in his car in Fontanta, California. (Steven Nava)
As a substitute teacher, Villarruel always acted like a “family figure” to his students, Nava said.
“[Villarruel] was just someone that kind of wanted you to stay on and guide you on that right path,” Nava said, adding that it’s those very details that stuck with him.
Now knowing his current situation, and what he had gone through over the last decade, Nava was at a loss for words.
“He doesn’t have his family with him right here,” he said. “He’s going through this alone. He’s much older and he’s left with very little money.”
Steven Nava and Jose "Mr. V" Villarruel in Fontana, California. (Steven Nava)
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Immediately, Nava handed him $300 in cash. Then, he reached out to his followers across his social media platforms and asked them to donate to a GoFundMe dedicated to helping the former substitute teacher who had been such an influence on his life.
Within a few days, he reached $10,000. However, his plan was to keep raising money and then hand-deliver all of the funds that following Thursday, on Villarruel’s 77th birthday.
While the GoFundMe campaign continued to grow, Nava and his friends would bring Villarruel blankets and other supplies and even took him out to eat.
Nava had been updating his social media followers on his progress throughout his journey and recognized that suddenly, tens of thousands of people were following the story.
By Thursday, Nava, thanks to donors all around the globe, was able to hand Villarruel a check for $27,000. So many people wanted to pitch in, Nava created a separate GoFundMe, which is still accepting donations.
Nava said he was in disbelief at what they had done for him.
However, Nava says Villarruel was there for the students, including himself, more than he could ever imagine.
“Mr. V has influenced myself and others to be a better person and character among others,” Nava said. “He’s taught me to have that drive and that ‘never give up’ attitude whenever facing a struggle in my life and that’s what’s helped me be the person I am now.”
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