Growing up on Manhattan's Lower East Side in a six-story walk-up left a lasting impression on Marty Garcia.
Garcia's family lived in "railroad apartments" that were long and narrow with no hallways. To reach his room he had to walk through his parents' bedroom.
Years later, during a successful career as a finance executive for CBS Television, Garcia moved to Newbury Park and learned about a new organization in town, Many Mansions, that helped low-income people afford decent housing.
"When you come to an affluent area like Thousand Oaks, you don't think people are struggling, but they are," said Garcia, 63. "To see a family happy to have a roof over their head is such a great feeling."
Garcia and his wife, Eileen, began making modest monetary contributions in January 1985 to Many Mansions' Adopt a Family program, in which anonymous donors help supplement rent payments for the less-fortunate. The couple usually donated $10 to $20 a month.
"It wasn't millions of dollars, but for someone who needed it, it meant something," said Eileen, 60.
With a father who served as a Seabee during World War II, Eileen said she remembered what it was like to live in cramped quarters. The oldest of eight children, she said her parents lived for six years in a two-bedroom New Jersey home for veterans, until her father built their first house in 1954.
Marty Garcia said his father, Isaac, worked a number of jobs to raise his family -- in a shipyard, a steel mill and as a coal miner. Isaac Garcia retired as a custodian for Trinity Church in New York and purchased his first home at 65.
"I know how hard my father worked to make ends meet," Marty Garcia said. "So we lived wherever we could."
Marty and Eileen learned that even small monthly donations to Many Mansions could keep a person who already receives federal subsidies from being without a home or needed medications.
"The more we got to talking about this, the more we wanted to get involved," he said.
Rental subsidies were the principal program during the early years of Many Mansions, said its first chairman, Frank Schillo, a former Ventura County supervisor. Since it began, Adopt a Family has helped more than 1,000 families cover their rent, which in Thousand Oaks averaged nearly $1,400 a month this summer.
Schillo was president of the Manna food bank in 1979 and was approached by a fellow member of his church, which had discontinued its own rental assistance program. Though busy running a financial planning firm and the food program, Schillo joined with other local professionals, clerics and contractors to tackle affordable housing.
Many Mansions, which was to celebrate its 25th anniversary Saturday with a $125-a-plate fundraising dinner at Sherwood Country Club, wanted to build low-cost residences from the start but initially ran into neighborhood opposition, Schillo said. After several years, it bought a parcel in the Old Town section of Thousand Oaks near the freeway and spent $3.1 million developing its first 29 units, Schillo Gardens, in 1988.
Four years later, using $9 million in city-backed bonds, Many Mansions purchased its first existing apartment complex, Shadow Hills on Wilbur Road, and refurbished its 101 units, initially renting one-bedroom units for as little as $484.
The nonprofit group now serves more than 1,000 low-income people in 313 subsidized apartment units that it owns and operates in Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley. Many Mansions is building 25 units at Hacienda de Feliz, its eighth complex, in a residential neighborhood north of the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza.
It also recently completed construction of Hillmont House, a 15-room mental health rehabilitation center in Ventura to be operated this fall by the county's Behavioral Health department.
In addition to their personal contributions, Marty over the years has helped raise funds for other Many Mansions projects, and Eileen volunteered her time helping coordinate parties for residents' children or transporting them to after-school activities.
In 1994, Marty Garcia joined Many Mansions' board as treasurer and has since also served as its president and vice president. "Since I retired from CBS, I feel like this is my full-time job," he said.
"You couldn't find more dedicated people than the Garcias," said board member Rose Schultz, chairwoman of the group's resident services committee.
"Eileen volunteers for everything. She has a heart of gold," Schultz said. "Marty's always there to pitch in wherever he's needed, and he's always cheerful about it."
"The most important dimension of our mission is the needs of our residents," said Sister Lisa Megaffin, board president. "If we get bogged down on finance or construction issues, Marty is the one who reminds us of our true purpose: to be concerned about 'the soul of Many Mansions.' "