By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Chester, who says he once killed someone but can't remember why, has requested peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch.
The owner and operator of the Rainbow Valley Boarding Home honors Chester's request. Eighty-one-year-old Izora Hill, probably the state's oldest active proprietor of a fully licensed supervisory care home for the chronically mentally ill, whips jelly into a bowl of peanut butter.
Chester waits outside on the front porch of the flat, sand-colored building set in the creosote flats of Rainbow Valley, an isolated community some 35 miles west of Phoenix.
"The peanut butter sandwiches are my idea," Chester tells the other residents milling about the porch. "Good eats."
Like all of the 11 male residents at the group home, Chester lives in his own world, riddled with private challenges that not even Izora can begin to comprehend. Chester has to contend with a string inside his head, for instance, that prevents him from "bombing" people.
The kitchen of the Rainbow Valley Boarding Home is a clutter of old tables, paperwork, boxes of cereal, cookies, candy bars, fruit, coupons, two old sinks, ragged fly swatters, an ancient gas stove and four antique but functioning padlocked refrigerators.
Izora Hill carries the keys to the refrigerators, along with 37 other keys, on a large chain in her pocket. She knows exactly what each key unlocks--the austere dorm rooms with bunk beds, the cluttered closets, the clean but ramshackle bathrooms and five old sheds, which once housed migrants who worked in the cotton and citrus fields. Now, they are repositories for dry goods, extra clothes, business files and the accumulated junk of Izora's eight decades on Earth.
Except for her tendency not to wear dentures unless she's going to town or has visitors, Izora doesn't show her years. She's a small, thin, muscular woman who dresses in secondhand clothes--an obsession with thriftiness that is the most obvious indication she lived through the Great Depression. Today, she wears a beige shirt, black and white bell bottoms of '70s vintage and the white leather walking shoes that seem to be her only self-indulgence. On days she has guests, she's liable to change into her favorite cotton housecoat.
Her lightly tanned skin is not terribly wrinkled, considering her years in the sun, and her brown eyes can be positively impish behind the trifocals she wears even when she sleeps. She swears not infrequently and is apt to offer an off-color response about the most serious matter. When she's asked how she handles one very large resident who is prone to violent outbursts, she answers in deadpan: "Kick 'im in the privates." She has, of course, never done so.
Looking at Izora now, you can still see why she once danced every dance Saturday nights at the Riverside Ballroom. Her high cheekbones push out of her angular face. She's of African-American, Native American and Irish heritage--her maiden name is Callahan--and although she could pass for any of these races, she thinks of herself as a black woman.
Most of the residents at Izora's place appear to be in their 50s and 60s. Some have lived there for a decade or more. The state of Arizona pays Izora $470 monthly for each resident's room and board, she says, and even with her parsimonious bent, that's barely enough to make ends meet.
Most residents have come to the Rainbow Valley Boarding Home from other group homes in the Valley, where they had been disruptive, or preyed upon, or both. Or they arrive in the company of a parole officer after release from state prisons or county jails, where they served time for crimes--some minor, some very serious--directly related to their mental disabilities.
"You would be surprised at the people they lock up in the pen," says Izora Hill, loading up each plate with two sandwiches, a wedge of watermelon and chips.
Lunch is ready.
The men shuffle past a hallway table with potted plants growing out of string-bean cans, past a bouquet of red plastic tulips atop a Coke machine.
They stand before their assigned seats. Charlie, a thin, elegant man with neatly cut white hair who happens to be prone to occasional violent outbursts, mumbles a hasty blessing. Chairs scrape against the worn linoleum floor. The men concentrate on the food, eat, do not talk.
"Got to keep an eye on Joaquin," Izora says, "I don't want him throwing it all up like he did at Christmas, when he just ate and ate 'til he got sick. He just doesn't know when he's full, that's his problem."
When they finish their lunch, the men remain seated in their classroom-like orange metal chairs, which Izora bought for a few cents on the dollar from administrators of a soon-to-be-demolished Phoenix school.
Except for the TV in the living room, which is tuned to a soap opera, the room is silent.
"Come on, Chester," Izora calls from the kitchen.
"Good eats," says Chester, grinning.
One by one she calls each man, who gets up, deposits his plate and silverware in the kitchen. Only Joaquin hangs behind, scrutinizing his right thumb.
"Joaquin, I already called you once," says Izora.
It might seem unusual for an 81-year-old to be caretaker, cook, chauffeur, laundress, counselor and dishwasher to 11 men with serious mental disabilities. But this type of endeavor is not unusual for Izora Hill, who has through force of spirit transcended the overt racism and sexism that black women faced during the first half of the 20th century, and the less blatant discrimination that exists in Arizona today.