Melanie Rice started as a singer and leader of the Melanie Rice Orchestra, then branched out into booking acts for private, corporate and casino events in 1995. She recently added talent management for Swedesboro blues singer Laura Cheadle and Los Angeles filmmaker Nicole Conn to her portfolio.

But no matter how busy her career gets, for 18 years the Galloway resident has taken time out to provide the entertainment - free of charge - for Manna At The Shore's annual dinner and dancing fundraiser. This year's event on Dec. 2 is honoring her, and she and her orchestra will be performing for it again, she said.

The nonprofit Manna provides 2,000 homecooked meals per month to people with HIV and AIDS, cancer and other debilitating illnesses, said event director Nina Soifer, of Northfield, who is also a member of Manna's Board of Directors.

South Jersey AIDS Alliance volunteers pick up the packaged and frozen meals, deliver them to the homebound and bring the rest to the agency's food pantry, which distributes them to 255 needy clients, said AIDS Alliance CEO Keith Egan. When Manna started in 1994, a higher percentage of its clients were homebound. Today, improved medications and treatment mean most are healthier and able to come to the food pantry. But many are still in need of help.

"Even if you are not poor when you get HIV, at some point you will become poor," Egan said. Manna meals are nutritious and well-balanced, he said, which is really important for people living with HIV.

The event, held at Congregation Beth Israel in Northfield, is Manna's only fundraiser, raising most of the group's $30,000 annual budget, said Soifer. This year, 28 restaurants will each provide one signature dish to the event, either an appetizer, entree or dessert.

That's up from 11 restaurants that participated in the first fundraiser 18 years ago. Restaurants which have been part of it the longest include Tuckahoe Inn in Upper Township, Cape May's Mad Batter, the Historic Smithville Inn, Steve and Cookie's By the Bay in Margate, and A Touch of Italy in Egg Harbor Township.

There are also wine, martini and beer bars.

Soifer recruited Rice for the very first event, back when she had a six-piece band. Now she's up to an 11-piece group.

"They were just getting started their very first year. I loved the cause," said Rice, 54. "Now it's one of the highlights of our year."

Rice's orchestra is a dance band that plays everything from Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj to Sinatra and everything in between, she said. She is one of three singers in the band, along with Rubin Singleton and Nicole Tranquillo, of New York; and Tiffany Dawson, of Delaware.

Manna By the Shore is based at Beth Israel, where its many volunteers prepare, package and freeze meals in a professional kitchen.

Beth Blumberg, of Linwood, has been baking for the group since its beginning, she said. She makes about 1,000 cookies from scratch per month.

"It's all anonymous, but every once in a while we get a note," Blumberg said. "We put out a survey a while ago, and every single patient said, 'Don't change a thing. Everything you do is amazing,'" she said. "It makes you feel really good to be helping people who don't receive a lot of help."

Manna has branched out into making and delivering meals for some cancer patients, she said.

Manna was started by two friends from Margate - Roberta Conners and Debbie Rose Monheit - both of whom have since died. Connors' son, JT, was dying of AIDS at the time, and Monheit offered to cook him meals. Realizing there were many other AIDS patients in need of similar help, they started Manna, Soifer said.

Soifer was visiting Monheit at her home when she came up with the idea of doing a fundraiser, offering food donated by local restaurants. She has been the director of the event ever since.

Jessica Cuevas, 47, of Margate, has volunteered as a food server for the event since its inception, she said.

"It only took being there the first time for us to be so overwhelmed with good feeling," said Cuevas, a third-grade teacher at Margate's Ross School. "Every single thing there is a gesture of kindness and generosity - from the flowers, to the food and music, to people like us who volunteer to work the event - it is all someone's gift. It adds to the special feeling of the night."

Her husband, Bob Blumberg, who owns a landscaping business, washes dishes each year.

"As long as we can, we'll be pitching in and doing this," she said.

For attendees, the dinner event "is one of the most amazing meals anybody could have anywhere," said Egan. "I tell people, if you can't go to anything else, go to the Manna fundraiser. It's stellar."

Contact Michelle Brunetti Post:

609-272-7219

Manna At the Shore Benefit

Held 6 to 9 p.m. Dec. 2 at Congregation Beth Israel, 2501 Shore Road, Northfield. Tickets are $100. Call 609-641-3600. To contact South Jersey AIDS Alliance, call 609-347-1085.