CLEVELAND (WJW) – With a simple thumbs up, she gave the world chills. Two days after finding her freedom, Gina DeJesus returned home to a whirlwind of reporters, cheering neighbors, and two parents who never gave up.
“I still feel like it’s a dream. I still pinch myself,” Gina’s mom, Nancy Ruiz was all smiles knowing her baby girl was finally home. “Even though she’s there and will be there, it’s like a dream.”
“I knew she needed me, and I never gave up searching for her,” said her dad, Felix DeJesus.
A shy and soft-spoken young woman, DeJesus found herself thrust into a spotlight she never wanted. Except for a few public appearances, DeJesus has always tried to lead a quiet life. In her first few years home, she received honors, wrote a book with Amanda Berry, and met then-president Barack Obama.
Fast forward a few years and DeJesus’ message is all about hope, working with the Northeast Ohio Amber Alert Committee and helping with the U.S. Marshals Missing Children Unit.
“I just want to give back and to help like they helped me when I came home,” DeJesus said.
But her biggest success story is the Cleveland Family Center for Missing Children and Adults. It’s a place for families to go for help when a loved one goes missing. Located on the corner of Seymour Avenue and West 25th Street in Cleveland, it’s just yards away from where DeJesus was held captive for all those years.
“I am a survivor and Seymour doesn’t bother me,” DeJesus said. “I want other people not to give up on hope and be a survivor just like me.”
Co-founded by DeJesus’ cousin, Sylvia Colon, the Missing Center is a family affair. Both DeJesus’ parents sit on the Board of Directors and personally meet with the families of the missing.
“When Gina first went missing, we had nobody,” said DeJesus’ mother Nancy Ruiz. “I had no guidance. Nobody to guide me or say anything to me. I was stuck at home while her father and siblings were out looking in dumpsters. I’ve been there. I know what they’re going through and they don’t need to go through it. I don’t want another parent to go through what I went through.”
“When my cousin went missing, I watched her family die a very slow death,” said DeJesus’ cousin Sylvia Colon. “Our kind of tagline is two-fold. One is ‘no family should ever have to beg for resources while searching for a missing loved one.’ We always want to be a soft place for families to land.”
Last year, the organization helped 58 families and traveled the country training law enforcement how to better engage with families of the missing. The program is effective because when DeJesus talks, people listen.
“It’s like she brings that one message of hope that, you know what? There’s a chance,” Newburgh Heights Police Chief John Majoy said. He knows DeJesus well, working with her on both the Amber Alert Committee and through the Missing Center. “She just brings that electric charge with her and nobody else can do that.”
Between the work with the Amber Alert Committee, the Missing Center, and helping with the U.S. Marshals, DeJesus has really blossomed into an accomplished young woman. “She’s become a businesswoman,” Colon said. “That’s really been a lot of fun to see.”
But DeJesus isn’t stopping here. She has big plans for the future.
“Any doors will open for her, and she has the opportunity to do whatever she wants to do,” said DeJesus’ cousin Felicia Soto. “She mentioned potentially going into being an attorney.”
If you’d like to attend the Cleveland Family Center for Missing Children & Adults annual fundraiser, click here for tickets.