Charlie Mann sits in a McDonald’s, tapping away at his laptop. He’s waiting for a woman who is driving in from Delaware to meet with him about his charity, Celestial Manna, which provides food, clothes, toys and supplies to people from Baltimore to northern Virginia and overseas.
“I know a lot of stories, stories that I shouldn’t know. I hold a lot in here,” says Mann, 66, as he points to his chest.
Mann began Celestial Manna in 1986 when he was going through his own financial rough patch. He runs it out of his Derwood house with the philosophy that people who need help can also help others.
Back then, though, he got a bakery to give him and his family extra food, and he donated what they didn’t eat to other people he knew.
He says the charity “mushroomed” into a sprawling network of 200 volunteers that he says feeds 6,000 people a week through food donated from restaurants, supermarkets and individuals.
And, after retiring three years ago from his career as a foreign language and English as a second language teacher, Mann sees no reason to slow down.
“Some people say retirement. I call it refirement,” Mann says, describing how he feels a fire inside to help others and cut down on food waste.
The woman from Delaware arrives and the two head to Mann’s house. Parked in front are two vans, one full of donated food, the other full of donated chairs. A two-story building stands behind his house — built with donations from six local churches — with refrigerators full of produce and other food on the ground floor and crates of food on the second floor.
Soon volunteers arrive, including Julie Kennedy, who has known Mann and volunteered with Celestial Manna since the 1980s. Like many Celestial Manna volunteers, she also relies on the nonprofit to help her through difficult times.
Mann says he tries to recruit volunteers among the people he helps. “I can’t do it all myself, so I ask people to go back and pick up food and help me get clothing and come alongside me when I get furniture. People don’t just receive; it’s also very cooperative. Many people stay on and continue to help out after they have met their needs.”
Kennedy’s car is full of food donated from a local supermarket. (The restaurants and stores that donate to Celestial Manna like to remain anonymous, Mann says.)
“Charlie’s whole life is about helping people in need,” Kennedy says. “Charlie is one of the most generous people I’ve ever met.”
Mann, who lives with his wife, Judy (who is the bookkeeper for Celestial Manna), has four children and five grandchildren. Since he was 12, he has had a tremor, which causes his hands, head and vocal cords to shake.
“It’s something I live with,” he says, adding that he used to love performing in theater. “Because of the tremor, I was always typecast as a drunk or a drug addict,” he says, laughing.
Mann says that his desire to help others doesn’t only come out of the hard times he’s faced, including his medical condition. He also used the Yiddish word nachas, which means pride or joy, to describe the way helping others makes him feel.
“I have such a joy of giving and seeing people receive.”
Mann says that the word “celestial” in the name of his charity came from the name of a painting and cleaning company he owned in the 1980s. He says the biblical story of the miracle of Israelites receiving manna from heaven in the desert resonates with him.
Despite the amount of time and energy Mann puts into Celestial Manna, he says he’s never been a great businessman and that he’s hoping to raise money to build a warehouse for his organization, which has nonprofit status. In addition to helping families and individuals directly, Celestial Manna provides food and other essentials to Wounded Warriors, homeless shelters and domestic violence shelters and has sent supplies to Central America, Africa and the Caribbean.
As Mann stands in his driveway talking, another volunteer, Alex Apostol, drives up with his teenage son to distribute some of the food Kennedy had brought to Mann’s house.
“Times are always difficult for many people and any little thing helps,” Apostol says. “Charlie has really made a difference in this community. “He’s like the Energizer bunny — he just keeps on going.”