Gina DeJesus had been locked away in a sealed off portion of her captor’s house since she was 14. During the nine years she was captive, she was confident she would one day be free.
“I would hear my parents on TV say they would never give up until someone can prove something happened to me,” she said. “My mom would say, ‘Until you bring me a body, then my daughter is still out there.’ It would give me hope and strength to keep fighting.”
On April 2, 2004, Gina was walking home from school in Cleveland, Ohio, when she was offered a ride from her friend’s father. Instead of taking her home, Ariel Castro made Gina a prisoner in his home with two other women he had abducted when they were teens, Michelle Knight and Amanda Berry.
Police thought Gina was a runaway and did not issue an AMBER Alert. Gina’s family did not think she ran away and did everything they could to get the public to help find her. The family made numerous televised appeals for help, held vigils and handed out flyers.
Ariel Castro brought a flyer home with Gina’s picture and gave it to her. “He said ‘I talked to your mom today and she gave me this flyer,’” said Gina. “I wanted to have the flyer since it was the last thing my mom touched.”
Gina said her captivity seemed to last forever. “I definitely did pray and I drew a lot about whatever I was feeling. I would write down what I was thinking in a journal. I hoped I could one day share the journal with my mom and dad and brothers and sisters.”
On May 6, 2013, Amanda Berry discovered Castro had failed to lock the door and she started screaming for help through a screen door. Neighbors called police and all three young women escaped. Castro was sentenced to life in prison, plus 1,000 years. He died a month later by hanging himself with a bed sheet.
A NEW CHAPTER
On October 26, 2018, Gina began using her experience as an abduction survivor to start The Cleveland Center for Missing, Abducted, and Exploited Children and Adults. She is partnering with her cousin Sylvia Colon who worked feverishly with other family members to find Gina. They are sharing their experiences and resources with families looking for a loved one.
“We want to help families when they are stressed,” said Gina. “I know what it is like to be sitting for years and not be found. I know what it is like to be missing.”
Gina said her parents encouraged her to start the center.
“It was a struggle for my mom to find me. She needed help handing out flyers, dealing with the media and keeping my story out in the public. She was also mad the police did not issue an AMBER Alert.”
The center’s mission statement has four goals:
- Eradicate and deter the abduction, exploitation and trafficking of children and adults;
- Establish a place for families and survivors to come for support and resources;
- Provide prevention training to the community at large; and
- Raise awareness to create a community of safety and security for all of our citizens.
Colleen Nick believes Gina offers invaluable advice for victims and their families.
Colleen has been a passionate advocate for missing children since her six-year-old daughter Morgan was kidnapped in 1995 while playing with friends in Alma, Arkansas. Morgan remains missing.
“Gina brings to the table all the misconceptions we have when we are trying to respond to a child abduction,” said Colleen. “Those assumptions that children didn’t survive or left willingly can hold a search back and cost a child valuable time in being recovered.”
“She brings life and her heart and she is making a tremendous difference for families and law enforcement.”
Colleen started the Morgan Nick Foundation in 1996 to support families of missing children. She is excited to collaborate with Gina and her new center.
“It is so powerful to hear firsthand perspective from a child who saw her parents fighting for her,” said Colleen. “It inspires me for what I am doing for my daughter. I want Morgan and others to be brave. Be courageous. We are coming to get you.”
Colleen fought back tears as she listened to Gina talk about seeing her mom on television while she was missing. She hopes Morgan has seen her on TV and learned about all of the efforts to find her.
“I always have hope for Morgan and I will always search for her,” she said. “When children are missing a long time there is a sense that parents should just go home and the child will probably never be found.”
AMBER ALERT EFFORTS
Gina is also a member of the Northeast Ohio AMBER Alert Committee (NOAAC). She has been training police departments and taking part in law enforcement conferences.
The committee created what is believed to be the first AMBER Alert Family Response Plan. The program gathers information from victims and their families after an AMBER Alert has been used.
Cleveland Center Board Member Christopher Minek said Gina has already made a huge difference to the Ohio AMBER Alert program.
“We didn’t have a good plan for families and she glued this program together. She is bringing exposure to an audience we were not able to reach,” said Christopher. “She gives life and motivation so that if a person is missing or abducted we will move mountains to bring that person home.”
Some committee members closely followed what happened to Gina when she went missing and when she was found.
“I will never forget when she was found. I will tell my grandchildren about it,” said one NOAAC member. “I used to pray for Gina and now it is such an amazing opportunity to work with her and know her as a friend.”
Gina said she is surprised by how people react when they see her and hear her speak. She considers herself “just a regular girl.” She said helping others has helped her become more confident when she writes and speaks. “I like that I can help find more children and bring them home.”
She also hopes her efforts will inspire those who are still missing. “Never give up and one day you will come back home.”