By Leah Rozen
May 04, 1987 12:00 PM

The Rev. Ralph Showers says he lost both his hands because “I needed to know what it felt like to be handicapped, and I think God knew that.”

The accident happened on a sunny afternoon in October 1973. Showers was standing on the roof of an old barn as it was being trucked to Rainbow Acres, a ranch for the mentally retarded north of Phoenix that he planned to open the following June. He was using a forked wooden pole to keep overhanging telephone wires from snagging the barn’s roof. Then he missed one, a sagging high-voltage power line. It ended up on his back as he was clutching a parallel telephone wire. When the current went through his body, he recalls, “I could smell my flesh burning. I remember thinking, ‘I can’t die if I keep my eyes open.’ ”

Showers was hospitalized for two months, and he lost both hands and forearms to within six inches of his elbows, but he opened Rainbow Acres on schedule. He did a lot of the construction himself, using the prosthetic hooks that had replaced his hands. Now, 13 years later, the 51-year-old Baptist minister runs a $2-million enterprise that includes three ranches and provides jobs for 97 mentally handicapped adults ranging in age from 18 to 55. Home for Showers, his wife, Marilyn, 48, and his sons (Mark, 24, Scott, 22, and Michael, 18) is a hilltop house overlooking Rainbow Acres and built with a third of the $325,000 settlement he received from the power company for his accident. (Another $150,000 went to Rainbow Acres and the remaining money to charity.)

“Before I lost my hands, my concept [of Rainbow Acres] was just a nondenominational ranch to take care of the poor devils,” he says. He figured then that there was little useful work the disabled could do and that he would let various government social services pay their bills. But his thinking changed when he joined the ranks of the handicapped himself. “I decided that the mentally handicapped I was going to serve would never be on welfare, would never be looked at as a number, and that we would do something constructive together.” His philosophy since then has become distinctly profit conscious. “If we can work hard enough to serve the public and produce something that will make money for us at the same time, that’s what we’re going to do.”

The original 10-acre site of Rainbow Acres, purchased with a $5,000 down payment on a $20,000 loan, is just outside Camp Verde, Ariz. Today it includes a schoolhouse, a crafts and woodworking shop, a gymnasium, a swimming pool and riding stables. Nearby, on another 28 acres, is Sunburst Farms, where landscaping shrubs are grown in a greenhouse. Ninety miles west is the 2,000-acre Starlite Cattle Co., a working cattle ranch. All are part of Showers’ organization, Rainbow Acres Inc., financed by donations from churches and individuals. His latest project, on 10 donated acres called the American Dream, is to be a theme park run by the handicapped, highlighting turn-of-the-century business and family life.

Ranchers live in neat double-size mobile homes, every four of them supervised by two “houseparents.” To be accepted at Rainbow Acres, ranchers must be able to talk, bathe themselves and go to the toilet unaided. Their “tuition,” $750 per month, which also covers room and board, is picked up by scholarship, parents, guardians or Social Security benefits. Showers says only 13 ranchers receive the latter—”and their need for these funds is being slowly reduced as they earn more wages for their work.”

The supervisory houseparents are paid $6,000 a year for what is essentially a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week job. Obviously it is a task that attracts highly motivated individuals, several with handicapped family members. While one houseparent worked there for nine years, others do not last the month. One couple likely to stay are Custer Axiotis, 58, and his wife Karen, 47, who have been houseparents for 19 months. “We came,” explains Axiotis, “because our son, Troy [who is 23], is here.” Before Rainbow Acres, Custer was a repairman with the Ford Motor Co. in San Jose, Calif., and his wife, who teaches in the crafts shop, was a schoolteacher. Sometimes it seems the job never ends, but, says Axiotis, “I’ve got a lot more patience now. If you don’t have enough to care for these people, you don’t belong here.”

Showers says he knows firsthand what it’s like to suffer the impatience of others. “Although there was no history of mental retardation in my family, I considered myself mentally handicapped,” he says. “I have an 84 IQ because I’m dyslexic. I can’t read very well.” The memories of fellow students making fun of him in his childhood years in Phoenix are still fresh and bitter. Yet despite his problems, Showers earned his B.S. in psychology from Arizona State University (“with scratch grades after a desperate struggle”) and his master’s in religious education from the California Baptist Seminary, now called the American Baptist Seminary of the West. “I grew up in a family where it didn’t matter what you had here,” he says, tapping his head with a hook, “but what you had here,” tapping his heart.

Stewart Petterson, 35, a short, stocky blond man with Down’s syndrome, has plenty of heart. He has been a day student at Rainbow Acres for 10 years and has three jobs, to which he diligently attends: raising and lowering the American flag in front of the gymnasium, sanding in the woodworking shop and serving as a custodian. For these duties, he receives $50 a month. “Retarded people live here and I have a lot of good friends here,” he says. “It’s fun being here.” Stewart recently ran for president of the Ranchers’ Council, the self-governing body of Rainbow Acres. “Eventually I want to run the place,” he says.

Stewart’s ambition and belief in himself may be Showers’ greatest vindication. “He’s gunning for my job,” says the minister proudly.