FONTANA, Calif. - A former substitute teacher who was living in his car was gifted with a $27,000 check by a former student.
Jose Villarruel, lovingly known as "Mr. V" by his students, turned 77 years old on Thursday. His former student, Steven Nava, now 21, decided to arrange a celebration for Villarruel.
Villarruel has served as a substitute teacher for decades.
"I feel very lucky and very honored that I have taught in different institutions of different levels," he said.
In early 2020, Villarruel said he resigned after schools shifted to distance learning.
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"I decided the school situation has changed completely and I believed that a job of a substitute was over. In May, I submitted my resignation. I managed to do all of the paperwork, all of the arrangements to get my pension. I got my check, but that check didn't last long because I had debts already," he said.
Villarruel has been living out of his car ever since.
"My body has been adapted to all of the bumps and things from the seat. It serves me as transportation, serves as a dining room, and serves as a bedroom," he said.
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His former student, Steven Nava, came across Villarruel one week ago in his car and recognized him.
"I usually see him almost every single day and it got me thinking, 'I've got to talk to him and know his situation.' I was just devastated and gutted for the reality of the pandemic and how it has left teachers without a job and this is one of the results and it's sad to see one of your own teachers go through that so it only makes you want to help out more," he said.
Nava said he remembers Villarruel helping him during his school years.
"I said to him you helped me work on my study guide and you helped me eventually pass a math test," he said.
Nava initially gave Villarruel $300, and then decided to start a GoFundMe page to help Villarruel get back on his feet. He shared it all over social media, including TikTok. Villarruel's story went viral on TikTok with over 1.7 million views.
"It's just the power of social media is so big now and sometimes we need to use it for good, and not for bad," he said.
The word spread to the Mayor of Fontana, Acquanetta Warren. Warren, former students of Villarruel and others gathered at the Fontana Community Senior Center for a celebration on Thursday. One of the students who attended was Melissa Lopez.
"Everybody always recognized him [Mr. V] because when he would go into the classroom, he always has such good energy and he would always be so sweet," said Lopez.
Villarruel was presented with a $27,000 check, along with other gifts at the celebration Thursday.
"My initial thought was, 'Am I dreaming?' I still can't get over this experience," he said.
Villarruel said he plans to help others.
"The greatest feeling that I have right now is like an obligation that I need to do a lot for the world and the greatest feeling is I can do it and I'm going to find a way to do it," he said.
Those interested in helping "Mr. V" can click here for more information.