Substitute teachers may not always get a lot of respect in the classroom, but one in Southern California has learned what a big impact he made on former students after they threw him a birthday he’ll never forget, at a time when he needed it most.
Jose Villarruel has been living out of his car in Fontana, California for the last several years. He initially made the decision because he was sending most of his income to his wife, children and family living in Mexico.
When the pandemic started last year, and classes went to remote learning, the need for substitute teachers went away and Villarruel had to consider using his retirement funds to have some income.
Steven Nava works as a welder, and early one morning he saw a man in a parking lot.
"Throughout the day, I was just thinking, 'Wait, wait, wait, I think that's my substitute teacher,'" Nava said, eventually realizing it was Mr. V, who taught him at Fontana High School.
Nava says he remembered Mr. V because of how nice he was to the students and was really funny.
Nava worked up the courage to go and talk to Villarruel, asked how he had been doing, and insisted on giving him all the cash he had on him, a few hundred bucks.
"He gave me this big old smile and said, 'Thank you so much,'" Nava said. "He came over to give me a hug and as he was hugging me, I saw a little tear run down his face."
That day, Nava started a GoFundMe for Mr. V, then a TikTok video viewed more than 1.7 million times. Donations rolled in, reached $27,000.
Villarruel turned 77 on March 11, and to celebrate, a large group of former students came together to surprise him with a large check.
San Bernardino County officials heard about Villarruel and got him a motel voucher for a month until longer-term housing and services can be arranged.
Villarruel says it was “totally unexpected.”