By SCOTT AIKEN, Herald-Palladium

BENTON HARBOR, MICH.. – All summer Estella Davis has had only a small fan to circulate the air in her house on Lake Avenue.  Unable to afford air conditioning, Davis and her sister, Mattie Beachar, were at the mercy of the blistering heat. When the indoor temperature became unbearable, sitting on the front porch sometimes offered a little comfort.

“You do what you can” Davis said.

On Wednesday, Davis and her sister got some lasting relief: a portable air conditioner delivered and set up by lawyers who developed a unique community project.

Conybeare Law Office of St. Joseph bought 35 air conditioners and provided them free to senior citizens in Berrien County who otherwise would do without.

Barry Conybeare, the law firm’s owner, said the idea grew out of a series of programs on safety he presents regularly on an area radio station. The August program, about staying safe in extreme heat, tied in with Conybeare’s interest in doing a public service project. Summer heat can be lethal, particularly to older people who may have medical problems, limited mobility and lack of transportation.  Conybeare said one air conditioning unit was delivered to a house shared by three generations of people. The bedrooms upstairs and the temperature in them were almost unbearable on a recent day.

Another home was equipped with central air conditioning but the system does not work and the owner didn’t have the $1,700 needed to fix it. “They were so appreciative,” Conybeare said.

Conybeare and attorney Bob Ehrenberg counted on the expertise of the Region IV Agency on Aging to find people who needed the air conditioners, 14,000-BTU units capable of cooling a small house or apartment.  The units were to have been received earlier in the summer, but shipping problems delayed the project. The first 15 units have been delivered to houses in several communities, and the remaining ones are to be set up by the end of the week.

The units are on wheels and may be moved from room to room. They take in and discharge air through tubes attached to a removable plate fit into a window.

Dianne Carlson, community services director for the Agency on Aging, said the law firm’s proposal provided an opportunity to connect people to the agency rather than dealing with an outside service. The agency has several programs for senior citizens in Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties, covering care management, senior volunteers, and information and assistance.

Some of the factors considered in deciding who would get the air conditioners were medical problems, income and whether a person is isolated or homebound, she said.  Many people are unable to afford air conditioning, Carlson said, and in a few cases the seniors turned down free units because they would not be able to pay higher electric bills.  For most, however, the cooling units were welcome.

“We got a call from a woman in her 70s and she said, ‘Thank you, thank you. I haven’t slept so well all summer,‘” Carlson said. “That was good feedback.”

When air conditioners are given away, the new owners are given paperwork explaining how to operate the equipment and a form that tells them to be aware that electricity costs will increase. Conybeare said his firm will take on additional public service projects in the future, but they may be a little less ambitious. “It’s been a huge project,” he said. “I thought it was a good way to give back to the community.”

This article appeared on August 27, 2010 in the Herald Palladium and is reprinted with permission.