[PHOTO AT LEFT - First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo, with granddaughter Mikaela, hands out gifts to indigent children during yesterday’s ‘Pasko sa Palasyo: Share a Joy, Share a Toy’ program at the Malacañang grounds. Photo by WILLY PEREZ]

MANILA, December 24, 2004 (STAR) First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo, assisted by his two granddaughters, played Santa Claus to about 1,300 children during a Christmas party at the Malacañang grounds yesterday.

Mr. Arroyo said his Christmas wish is for his only daughter Evangeline Lourdes "Luli" Arroyo to get married soon and give him more grandchildren.

The First Gentleman turned the front yard of the New Executive Building at the Palace into a playground, complete with a giant slide and mascots and clowns from Laguna’s Enchanted Kingdom theme park.

Wearing a Santa Claus cap, he was a doting grandfather to two-year-old Mikaela Gloria and 10-month-old Eva Victoria Arroyo.

"Mika" and "Eve" are the firstborn children of Pampanga Rep. Juan Miguel "Mikey" Arroyo and Diosdado "Dato" Arroyo, respectively.

The two presidential granddaughters led Mr. Arroyo’s "Share-a-Joy, Share-a-Toy" project, where children aged 3 to 12 years from well-to-do families gave their extra toys as Christmas gifts to children from poor families.

Mika handed a Christmas gift to three-year-old Estella Marie Sor, who was a special guest at yesterday’s party. Sor was one of four survivors rescued after 10 days of being trapped underneath the rubble of a building crushed by a landslide in Real, Quezon at the height of typhoon "Winnie" last Nov. 29.

Estella Marie was joined at the party by her fellow survivors: Maria Luba, her 49-year-old grandmother, and 14-year-olds Modesto Manoguid and Ian Carl Bungat.

Estella Marie’s father, 31-year-old Melvin Sor, was also at the party. He lost his wife Catherine, their nine-month-old baby John Marvin, and both his parents when the building collapsed.

President Arroyo dropped by to greet the children and talk briefly with the four survivors.

The nannies of children from well-to-do families could barely control their excited wards, who ran and played with the rest of the children.

"The children have shown, whether they (are) poor or rich, they are all here and can be together. There is no difference between rich and poor. We’re all Filipinos, let us do things for the good of the country," the First Gentleman said.

As he earlier promised, Estella Marie, her family and the two teenage boys were brought back to their homes on board the Arroyos’ helicopter "so that they can have the experience of a chopper ride," Mr. Arroyo said.

Aside from Christmas gifts, he also gave the four survivors P10,000 each from his own pocket.

Melvin Sor told The STAR they took a bus from Quezon last Wednesday and were temporarily housed at the Department of Social Welfare and Development office that night. They were brought to Malacañang yesterday morning.

He thanked the First Couple for inviting them to Malacañang, saying their family was happy despite the tragedy that befell some of its members.

Yesterday’s Christmas party was the only one held at Malacañang in deference to the people who died from the floods and landslides brought about by the four typhoons that hit the country some weeks ago.

"This Christmas, let us thank the Lord for the blessings and (it’s) more important to be united," Mr. Arroyo said.

The children were treated to a feast of hot "lugaw" or rice porridge with shreds of chicken, which the First Gentleman bragged was a specialty of his "LTA boys," referring to his 12 brothers and cousins working for the family-owned LTA building in Makati City.

Food firms Pizzitos, Goldilocks, CDO and Jollibee also donated their products to feed the children at the Christmas party.

Mr. Arroyo also expressed a wish for more grandchildren. Though Mikey and his wife Angela are expecting their second child, he still wants grandchildren from his 33-year-old only daughter.

"I wish that my family would remain solidly strong and I want to have more grandchildren. That’s my message to my children. And for my daughter, I hope she gets married soon so she will give us grandchildren, too," he said.

A low-profile member of the First Family, Luli has a steady boyfriend who, like her, is involved in the field of information and communications technology. She holds a degree in foreign service from Georgetown University, her mother’s alma mater.

Though Luli passed and topped the foreign service officer examinations given by the Department of Foreign Affairs in 2002, the President did not sign her appointment papers for fear of being accused of nepotism.

Luli is the First Couple’s middle child. Her elder brother Mikey was married in 2001 and Dato followed suit and wed long-time fiancee Victoria Manotoc the next year.

"I hope my boys and their wives produce more children. And I want my family to be always together as a family," the First Gentleman said.

As for his wife, Mr. Arroyo wished "that she be happy and that all of us Filipinos be happy." — Marichu Villanueva

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved