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The Man Collecting & Donating Singapore's Used Clothes

By Guan Tan

In 79-year-old Sir John Michael Di Gregorio's hands, documents of his donations and imports. The Italian-American is based in Singapore, and exports Singapore's used clothing to the underprivileged in the region.
 
Felicia Yap
In 79-year-old Sir John Michael Di Gregorio's hands, documents of his donations and imports. The Italian-American is based in Singapore, and exports Singapore's used clothing to the underprivileged in the region.

There's a man in Singapore who collects, cleans, and brings the nation's throwaway clothes abroad. On one occasion, he collected 900 kilograms of clothes for volunteers headed to Myanmar. The clothes will eventually be handed personally to the children there. When the Nepal earthquake struck in 2015, he delivered "four thousand blankets and about sixty boxes of clothing" to the disaster centre. 

This is but the tip of the iceberg. He is redistributing clothes on a daily basis. To him, charity should not be an afterthought. Items like used clothes have longevity, and should be reappropriated to help others who need it. "I reckon that I have helped more than four million people in Asia and about 95 percent do not know my name," Sir John Michael Di Gregorio laughs.  

Felicia YapDi Gregorio and his wife, Melody, sorting out unsold secondhand clothes from a thrift shop in the Bras Basah district, New2U.
Di Gregorio and his wife, Melody, sorting out unsold secondhand clothes from a thrift shop in the Bras Basah district, New2U.

Di Gregorio turns 80 next year. He was born in Italy but lived in America. In 1990, he was appointed one of "the Knights of Malta and made Ambassador for East Asia". Due to the nature of his diplomatic work, he "travelled extensively in this region and [is] well aware of the needs of the local populations." 

On a regular week, Di Gregorio delivers clothes to orphanages and charitable associations in the region. "Used clothing generally has a sustainable use," he adds. What happens is, representatives from the different countries and organisations call him up with "a list of what is needed locally" and Di Gregorio will try to pull the items together in Singapore – from local thrift shops like New2U, other local charitable associations, and volunteers – and have them delivered.

But when natural disasters strike, Di Gregorio jumps into action. "A flood, earthquake, typhoon or tsunami, blankets are the most effective type of aid. Usually, we follow up with good used clothing and other necessities." 

Di Gregorio's blankets are, in fact, from commercial planes. "I've been working with the Singapore Airlines for the last 13 years. They give me their scrap blankets. After three years, they have to change their blankets. So we get thousands and thousands of blankets." These blankets have comforted the victims of "ISIS in Marawai", the displacees from the floods in Bangkok and Jakarta, the Nepalese earthquake, and typhoons in Philippines.

Sir John Michael Di GregorioStacks of blankets from Singapore Airlines, laundered and waiting for their logos to be removed by a team of volunteers who actively helps Di Gregorio out.
Stacks of blankets from Singapore Airlines, laundered and waiting for their logos to be removed by a team of volunteers who actively helps Di Gregorio out.

When Di Gregorio arrives at the orphanages or natural disaster centres, he is always heartened by the response he receives. "We just give [it to] them and they put it right on!" When Di Gregorio is unable to make the trip personally, the representatives send him pictures of the children and disaster victims, decked in the clothes he sent. "I'm always happy when they send me extra pictures." 

A Complex Process

The business of charity is not a simple one. In our conversation, Di Gregorio stressed that he only works with trusted friends and affiliates – charities and organisations that do not barter trade or monetise humanitarian aid. It's a phenomenon in charity, where aid recipients resell these donations instead of using them. 

That aside, bringing large quantities of clothes into a country is a difficult process. The authorities often do not support humanitarian aid. "Many governments have strict regulations regarding the import of donated clothing or goods. The problem, however, lies with corrupt officials at the receiving end. These officials often demand 'coffee' money from the recipients of the donated items. If the 'coffee' money is not paid, the customs officials will place the shipping documents at the bottom of the stack and threaten the recipients with hefty demurrage fees or fines," Di Gregorio explains. His network, however, has allowed him easier access to Indonesia, the state of Johor in Malaysia and the Philippines. 

With all these and logistical costs in mind, Di Gregorio has spent "hundreds of thousands of dollars on charity work... I usually pay for the costs of shipping from my own account." 

Sir John Michael Di Gregorio
"We sent four giant boxes of mostly children's clothing which the residents of Cebu requested," Di Gregorio recalls. "When I see the smiles on the faces of the recipients...it makes all the hard work worthwhile. Nothing is sweeter than a child's sincere smile."

The reason why Di Gregorio does all these stems from his childhood, living as an Italian immigrant in the United States. "I come from an immigrant community, where there was mass poverty. I was quite familiar with thrift shops. There were very few occasions where we wore new clothing... I was raised not to be wasteful and so I could see the value in recycling. When I was a kid, my father was a 'karang guni' man and my mother was a maid." 

They lived a life dedicated to serving the poor around them. "My mom, being a typical Italian mother, always had a big pot of pasta on the stove. And more often than not, we had strangers at our dining table." 

Later, when Di Gregorio turned 25 in 1963, he responded to the 6.0-magnitude earthquake in Skopje, Macedonia. That was his first foray into disaster relief. "Since then, I have been responding to natural disasters around the world." 

Overseas natural disasters and charitable organisations aside, Di Gregorio keeps a close watch over the migrant workers here in Singapore – people who receive low average wages and do not have the disposable income to spend on necessities. "We donate clothing which is not sent abroad to various foreign worker groups, abused maids". Amongst them, is a shelter for "abused Filippino maids who are awaiting trial and hoping to return to the Philippines". 

Di Gregorio reconsiders his age and the longevity of the charitable work that he does. Till date, he is still actively gathering clothes, moving 22 kilograms' worth of boxes around, networking with commercial, political, and charitable organisations in the region to ease the transaction of humanitarian aid. But Di Gregorio will soon turn 80 next June. To him, his goal is simple – to do good until the last week of his life on earth. Yet, to us, the wider public, a difficult question arises – who will take over Di Gregorio's baton?