He worked hard, doing a wide variety of jobs, and eventually started a gardening business on the peninsula.
"I love to work around roses, I think that's my speciality," Tapia said.
Tapia only had a sixth grade education, but after years of hard work he managed to put his son through law school.
His son's graduation became the inspiration for Tapia to start a college scholarship program for low income students.
"I say, 'he did it, other kids from humble families can do it as well,'" Tapia said.
Tapia recruited other gardeners to help. They began sending letters to their wealthy clients and within two weeks, they had $10,000 in donations.
They formed a non-profit group called the Bay Area Gardeners Foundation. Two years ago, they gave out their first scholarships - for $1,500 each, about the cost of a semester at a state university.
"It really motivated me because it's coming from someone who started from the bottom, someone who started with the dream with the future," scholarship recipient Mayra Argueta said.
Argueta is a junior at San Jose State University. She was raised by a single mother who speaks no English. Argueta is the first in her family to go to college, and said support from the Gardeners Foundation has made a big difference.
Many of the Gardeners' scholarships have gone to the children of immigrants. It is one of only a few scholarships that does not check immigration status. Any low income student with at least a 2.5 grade point average is eligible to apply.
"The ones that we are supporting are the ones that need it most," Tapia said.
Almost from the start, the foundation began attracting media attention. Television, newspaper and radio stories appeared across the country; and the money started rolling in.
The Bay Area Gardeners Foundation has raised $250,000 for scholarships, and has no intention of slowing down any time soon.
The foundation is holding a benefit dinner Saturday, July 26 in Burlingame. Click here for details.
Written and produced by Jennifer Olney