A Legacy of Love

After losing their young daughter, Mia, to cancer two years ago, pro golfer Camilo Villegas and his wife, Maria Ochoa, have been coping with their loss and turning tragedy into hope through their foundation, Mia’s Miracles. Now the couple has been blessed with their own miracle, a newborn son, Mateo.

153
Maria, Camilo, Mateo, and the family’s Great Dane, Pixie, hang out in Mateo’s nursery. Photography by Benjamin Rusnak
Maria, Camilo, Mateo, and the family’s Great Dane, Pixie, hang out in Mateo’s nursery. Photography by Benjamin Rusnak

In March 2020, the COVID outbreak was about the furthest thing from Maria Ochoa’s mind. She and her husband, professional golfer Camilo Villegas, were too busy worrying about their 17-month-old daughter, Mia, who had gone from being a “very active little monkey” to tired and unwilling to eat. Doctors thought Mia could have been teething or struggling with some type of virus. But when the child started grabbing her head one sleepless night, her parents knew it had to be something more. “I called a family friend of ours in Colombia who is a pediatrician, and he told me I needed to take Mia to a neurologist,” recalls Ochoa. 

Camilo in action during the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship in 2020. Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Camilo in action during the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship in 2020. Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Ochoa and Villegas had already been through so much life together. The Jupiter residents had known each other since they were both 12 years old living in their hometown
of Medellín, Colombia. “We were always close growing up but never dated, even though I always thought she was pretty and interesting,” says Villega. “We always had a lot in common and would see each other a lot because we had many of the same friends.”

Opportunity—golf for him, nonprofit work for her—would eventually bring both of them to the United States, at separate times. Villegas moved to the States to attend the University of Florida and launched his professional golf career in 2004; Ochoa was in law school in Colombia at the time. Both had recently gone through breakups, and they decided the timing was right to start dating, even though it would be long distance at first. 

In 2008, Ochoa moved to Miami to work with the nonprofit Give to Colombia, while Villegas was quickly becoming a force on the PGA Tour. By 2014, he had won four Tour championships, including The Honda Classic at PGA National in 2010.

Camilo, Maria, and Mia in 2018. Photo courtesy of Maria Ochoa
Camilo, Maria, and Mia in 2018. Photo courtesy of Maria Ochoa

The couple moved in together in Jupiter in 2012, and one night, as the sun began to set, Villegas proposed to Ochoa on a paddleboard. They married in 2014 and, both from close-knit families, they were excited to have children. But Ochoa struggled to get pregnant for three years before Mia was born in 2018. Now the new parents were facing the terrifying unknowns about their child side by side. 

Villegas called friend and fellow golfer Jack Nicklaus and told him of their plight. Nicklaus—whose own daughter, Nan, had a bout with pneumonia in her youth that inspired his lifelong commitment to children’s health care, most notably through the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation—immediately empathized. He arranged for Mia to be seen at his namesake hospital in Miami right away. 

Maria with daughter Mia in December 2018. Photo courtesy of Maria Ochoa
Maria with Mia in December 2018. Photo courtesy of Maria Ochoa

The family arrived in Miami on March 14, and one day later, Mia was diagnosed with brain and spine cancer. “That whole time in the hospital, Maria was unbelievable,” says Villegas. “I probably cried in the hospital more than she did.” Ochoa says she drew strength from her faith as well as self-care. “The doctors told me I had to take care of myself too,” she says. “So when I could, I would come up to our home in Jupiter for a day to walk on the beach and recharge. I made sure I had those healing moments for myself as I tried to trust the process and the universe.”

Tragically, Mia succumbed to her illness and passed away in the hospital that July. Ochoa and Villegas were utterly devastated. “There are no words that will ever describe or do justice to what we went through and what other families go through,” says Ochoa. 

At the height of their grief, the couple found purpose. They decided to turn Villegas’ charitable foundation into Mia’s Miracles, which supports children and families in Florida and Colombia who are enduring similar medical struggles. “Under the circumstances, we were very blessed,” says Ochoa, who serves as the foundation’s president. “Yes, Mia had a tough diagnosis. But we had all the support and financial resources so we could be there for her 24/7. Not all families are as fortunate as we are, and I want to do everything in my power to help them.”

The couple at the unveiling of Mia’s Serenity Space for Staff at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in March 2021. Photo courtesy of Maria Ochoa
The couple at the unveiling of Mia’s Serenity Space for Staff at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in March 2021. Photo courtesy of Maria Ochoa

During hard times, Ochoa knows how crucial it is to bring a smile to a child’s face or relief to a family in pain. Working with Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, she says Mia’s Miracles identifies and “adopts” families that could benefit from financial assistance to pay for things not covered by insurance, such as rent, groceries, and therapies. The foundation also has a fund that covers more specific emergencies.

“The Christmas before last, there was a young patient at Nicklaus who was alone for four months getting treatment because the family in El Salvador couldn’t afford to be there too,” Ochoa says. “So we got the mom a visa so she could come here. We do so many different things like this for families, from burial services to activities for kids to self-care baskets for moms with babies in NICU units.”

Camilo and Mateo enjoy some father-son time at home. Photography by Benjamin Rusnak
Camilo and Mateo enjoy some father-son time at home. Photography by Benjamin Rusnak

In 2021, the couple gave back to the doctors and nurses at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital who did everything they could for Mia. Through the foundation, they created two areas called Mia’s Serenity Space for Staff—one in the oncology unit and the other in the pediatric ICU—where employees can go to take a moment for themselves and recharge. And this year, Mia’s Miracles will be donating a NICU unit to a hospital in Colombia. “It’s an amazing hospital, but they don’t have enough capacity,” Ochoa says. “Every month, they have to turn away 50 babies, and those babies don’t make it. This will change that.”

As the couple poured their hearts into the foundation and tried to heal from their loss, Ochoa began wondering whether she could have another child and, if so, whether it would be healthy. At the same time, she also didn’t want to rush the grieving process. She wanted to be certain she was ready and able to give a newborn the same love and attention she gave to Mia. “Maria was hesitant [to try again], which was understandable,” says Villegas. “There was a mental battle, and some mixed feelings to overcome.”

The family on the balcony of their Jupiter home on the Loxahatchee River. Photography by Benjamin Rusnak
The family on the balcony of their Jupiter home on the Loxahatchee River. Photography by Benjamin Rusnak

Last year, their miracle arrived. Ochoa found out she was pregnant in March 2021 and gave birth to a healthy baby boy, Mateo, in December. “It’s kind of funny because Mia was born at 7:56 p.m., and Mateo was born at 7:56 a.m.,” Ochoa says. “When they told me the time of birth, I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ I believe Mia sends me little messages from time to time, and this was one of them. So I knew everything was going to be okay.”

The couple misses Mia every second of the day, but they are enjoying life with Mateo, whom Ochoa describes as “beautiful, peaceful, and calm.” She loves the serenity that comes with living near the water and time spent with her little boy. 

Maria with Pixie. Photography by Benjamin Rusnak
Maria with Pixie. Photography by Benjamin Rusnak

Meanwhile, Villegas has been doing what he does best, logging 13 appearances around the world thus far on the 2021-2022 PGA Tour (as of press time in April). When he’s not away playing tournaments, he relishes relaxing at home with his wife and son and enjoying sunsets with them from their backyard overlooking the Loxahatchee River. “Maria probably wishes we would travel more, but when I’m home, I want to be home,” he says. 

Life is beautiful for the loving family—but still, it’s bittersweet. “It’s hard to put it into words,” Ochoa says. “I am so happy and feeling such joy for this tiny being who is so cute. But there’s not one second of my day that I’m not thinking of Mia. At the same time, I have learned to experience joy regardless of not having her with us.”

Camilo coaxes Pixie to join the family on the dock, something he says she rarely agrees to! Photography by Benjamin Rusnak
Camilo coaxes Pixie to join the family on the dock, something he says she rarely agrees to! Photography by Benjamin Rusnak

The trick, perhaps, is to live as though Mia is still with them, at least in spirit. “Mateo has brought smiles to this family,” Villegas says. “And we find ways to talk to him about his sister. We talk about her all the time, about how she’s looking down from heaven and being with us.” 

Mia will always be a part of their family, and her parents will continue to make miracles in her name.

Facebook Comments