The nonprofit Free Meal Center has elicited the help of hundreds of volunteers, and raised $20,000 of the $50,000 it needs by March 31 to keep its 4,200-square-foot building on Route 9 in the Burleigh section of Middle Township. Now organizers are hoping enough people will come out to two planned fundraisers next month, to raise the other $30,000 needed.

Board members and volunteers are turning a former eatery, best known as the Old Country House Restaurant, into Cape May County's first daily soup kitchen. But the group must vacate the premises if it can't make the March payment on time, and take a mortgage on the rest.

Founder Douglas Jewell, co-owner of Jewell Real Estate in Wildwood Crest, said he expects to be successful in raising the money. He said a donor has pledged to pay the full $335,000 cost of the building, but legal complications have held up the donation.

So the fundraisers and direct donations are his backup plan, he said.

Real estate agent Bobbie Greenwood, of Don Martin Realtors in North Wildwood, is also a volunteer board member and is helping with the fundraisers.

She is helping with the March fundraisers, to be held at Flip Flopz in North Wildwood, and the Old Shamrock Cafe in Wildwood. She is so confident that the group will succeed, she is already planning a raffle to be drawn this summer.

The owner is Mayville, LLC, based in Langhorne, Pa., according to the Middle Township Tax Office.

Home Depot has donated about $20,000 in materials to renovate the building, which now sits with its interior gutted until the financial issues are settled. Jewell said donors have already provided kitchen equipment, which is in a storage until it can be installed. And carpenters and other workmen are willing to donate their time in finishing the building.

Jewell, who has said he will donate his $10,000 commission for acting as real estate agent for the deal, estimates it will take four months from the time the payment is made for the interior work to be complete and the center to open.

He got the idea to start the Free Meal Center when he saw how some of his real estate clients' renters were struggling to feed themselves and sometimes their kids.

"The landlord puts a house up for sale, and we were discovering senior citizens running out of money and living on saltine crackers and margarine," Jewell said. "One time we saw a family with five kids, and they all had different color lips. All they had in the refrigerator was ketchup and mustard, and in the freezer was freezer pops. That's what the kids were living on, like they were hummingbirds living on sugar water.

"We saw a lot of things that made us cringe, and we said, 'We can do something.'"

Contact Michelle Brunetti Post:

609-272-7219

If You Go

Fundraiser, 3 p.m. Sunday at Flip Flopz, 300 Olde New Jersey Ave., North Wildwood. Chinese auction and raffle, and continuous entertainment with four bands, comedians and a magician. Tickets $20, which includes a buffet.

Beef & Beer fundraiser 4 p.m . March 22 at the Shamrock Cafe, 3700 Pacific Ave., Wildwood. Tickets $20.

For tickets or information, call Bobbie Greenwood at 609-425-4264 or Joyce Jewell at 609-780-7131.