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Pedro Pan activist honored for her legacy of service

To 8-year-old Francisco “Paco’’ Prío, success is measured not by Ferraris but by “how much you make a difference in your community.”

His grandmother taught him that.

On Friday, his grandmother, Elisa Vilano Chovel, was honored for her legacy of service, which included founding Operation Pedro Pan Group, a network of hundreds of Cuban exiles whom the U.S. government and the Catholic Church ferried to Miami as children after Fidel Castro came to power in 1960.

Chovel, who died in 2007 at age 61, had Southeast 15th Road, east of Brickell Avenue and St. Jude’s Catholic Church, named after her. The street sign faces Chovel’s favorite view of Biscayne Bay.

Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado, a Pedro Pan child, commemorated the event, along with Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez and a host of doctors, lawyers, accountants, bankers and other professionals.

“My grandmother was a confident leader despite having grown up at a time when women and immigrants did not have many opportunities,” said Paco’s brother, Max Prío, 18, who is studying at Boston College. “She paved the road for my mom and girls like my sister and she inspires me every day to be proud of my Cuban heritage.”

With tears in her eyes and a lump in her throat, Brigid Prío, 45, Chovel’s daughter and mother of Max, Bella and Paco, told the crowd that Chovel “was a mover and a shaker, who could call upon anyone to pitch in on her next big project because she was always the first one to roll up her sleeves and do the work.”

Chovel was a tireless advocate for undocumented children housed at the Child Welfare Catholic Home for Children in Perrine and Boystown of Florida in Kendall. To Gerardo Simms, a federal prosecutor and member of the Operation Pedro Pan Group, Chovel was like “the sister who reunited all the brothers and helped to preserve history.”

She was born in Guanabacoa, a colonial neighborhood in eastern Havana, Cuba, on Feb. 1, 1946. She was 16 and her sister was 11 when their parents became concerned that Fidel Castro’s Communist government would indoctrinate their children, they reached out to the Catholic Church and Operation Pedro Pan, a joint effort between the church and the U.S. government. They were among 14,000 Cuban children flown to the United States between 1960 and 1962.

The sisters arrived in Miami and were taken to what was then known as the Florida City camp. From there, they were relocated with a family in Buffalo, N.Y.

“It was not an easy journey, but she was strong,” said Chovel’s sister, Maria del Carmen Vilano, who later changed her name to Billie Taylor and made a career as a fashion stylist.

It took six years for the girls to be reunited with their parents, who moved to Spain before coming to the United States. The girls were 17 and 22.

Chovel wed Thomas Francis Flanigan in Coconut Grove and moved to Miami. Flanigan served in the U.S. military and died while serving in Vietnam. Chovel would later marry Alain Chovel, who died earlier this year. They had a son, Alan, now 33, who helped to unveil the street sign.

Chovel went on to become a real estate agent with EWM Realtors and Shelton and Stewart Realtors; her sales at one point put her in the top 1 percent nationwide.

Chovel, who lived in Coral Gables and Brickell, developed a close relationship with Monsignor Bryan O. Walsh, the Miami priest who came from Ireland and was instrumental in developing Operation Pedro Pan.

In 1991, Chovel founded the Operation Pedro Pan Group, allowing the adults who were part of the exodus to help preserve the historic record and contribute to Catholic Charities, the Archdiocese of Miami’s humanitarian mission.

“Mom helped others with love,” said Chovel’s daughter, Bronwyn Chovel, 42. “She was a believer and was very religious.’’

In 1998, Chovel joined a New York pilgrimage to witness Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba.

After Walsh died in 2001, Chovel led an effort to realize his dream: to open a village for children in need. In 2006, the Monsignor Bryan O. Walsh Boystown Children’s Village, a shelter for children who were abused or in need, opened its doors.

Those who worked with Chovel recalled her as fiery, spunky, empathetic, resolute, visionary and compassionate.

“I wish I could hug her, but I can’t. She lives in the hearts of all these people here,” Paco said through tears. “This street is a sign that she will never be forgotten.”