Volunteers in Medicine of Cape May County is marking its 10th year in 2012. It hasn't been an easy road for the nonprofit, which provides free health care to uninsured people in the county, said Executive Director Jackie Meiluta.

The VIM model started in affluent Hilton Head Island, S.C. in 1992, when a retired doctor living there organized a corps of retired medical personnel, who were looking for a way to keep practicing on a voluntary, part-time basis. They provided free health care to people who worked service jobs on the island and had no insurance.

VIM's first free clinic in Hilton Head opened with 200 doctors on its roster of volunteers, said VIM Cape May County Executive Director Jacqueline Meiluta.

When VIM started in Cape May County in 2002 - all VIMs are independent, but follow the Hilton Head model - it seemed Cape May County would have a similar experience. It, too, had small affluent areas surrounded by communities of the working poor.

"But it's not at all a perfect fit," Meiluta said.

The problem is that wealthier areas, like Stone Harbor and Avalon, are summer communities. The doctors who have homes in them only spend about three months there. Most originally practiced in Pennsylvania and don't have New Jersey licenses. They would have to go through a complicated process to get licensed in New Jersey to volunteer for such a short time, Meiluta said.

As a result, the 17 doctors who volunteer at VIM are mostly still working and have busy practices, and can't volunteer as much as a retired doctor can.

What is similar is the client base.

"We serve the working poor, the majority of our patients work in motels in Wildwood, in landscaping and food service. They are fishermen and construction workers. Most don't work 12 months a year, but are laid off in winter. They have the type of jobs that don't offer benefits, even with 12-month employment," Meiluta said.

The organization has grown in 10 years. In 2002 when it opened, it had clinic hours two nights per week for a total of six hours. Now it runs clinics five days per week, for a total of 28 hours. Community groups such as area Lions Clubs, which fund VIM's eye clinics, have been essential to its growth.

Since opening VIM has cared for more than 3,600 patients. with 20,000 patient visits, Meiluta said. It has enough volunteer administrative staff and nurses to offer more clinic hours, but needs more volunteer doctors, nurse practitioners and physicians' assistants.

"We are evolving into a true primary care office. We're not just giving piecemeal care to get over the hump, but true preventive care," said Dr. Elizabeth Crowley, the VIM Cape May County medical director. "We see patients calling us their doctor. Sometimes people get (covered by) Medicaid or Medicare and are sad they can't come to the clinic anymore."

Very few of the patients are children, because New Jersey has a subsidized Family Care program to provide health insurance to children in need, and sometimes their parents, Meiluta said.

Meiluta would like to raise $20,000 at a March 11 "VIM Day" breakfast to celebrate the 10th birthday. The group celebrates its anniversary each year, but usually holds a breakfast that breaks even financially.

"Normally VIM Day is just a breakfast to say, 'Hey, it's our birthday, we're here,'" Meiluta said. "This is our 10th anniversary, and that's a big deal."

If you go

The Volunteers in Medicine 10th Anniversary Celebration Brunch, noon March 11 at the Avalon Golf Club, 1510 Route 9 North, Cape May Court House. Tickets are $50 per person. Visit http://www.vimcmc.org/" target= "_blank">www.vimcmc.org, or call 609-463-2846 for reservations.