Reuters/Landov (3)
Jeff Truesdell
May 10, 2013 10:00 AM

After years spent indoors together in close proximity, almost never being allowed outside the dilapidated house where they were held hostage, the three young women rescued in Cleveland on Monday are trying to find their separate ways back to a sense of normalcy outside of the public’s gaze.

Both Gina DeJesus and Amanda Berry returned home to joyous neighborhood welcomes on Wednesday. In Gina’s case, that included a backyard family gathering attended by relatives and the closest of family friends.

One of those friends, Lydia Esparra, tells PEOPLE: “Despite being skinny, she looked very healthy. She obviously doesn’t have a lot of skin color, ’cause she’s been living in a house with no sun for nine years. But she looks amazing. Amazing.”

By day’s end, the family had erected blue plastic sheeting to shield the shaded backyard of the home on West 71st Street from view.

RELATED: Gina DeJesus Is Thinner and Paler, But ‘Inside She’s Still Gina’

Police Protection

Sixty blocks away, at her sister’s home on West 129th Street, Berry also privately celebrated her return. Neither woman showed her face when she arrived home by police motorcade – Gina wore a hooded sweatshirt as she was rushed inside, and Amanda entered her sister’s house via a backdoor out of view – and on Thursday, police remained posted outside both houses to keep unwanted visitors at bay.

Michelle Knight, meanwhile, had returned to MetroHealth Medical Center, where a hospital spokesman says her condition Thursday was listed as “good” but provided no other information. Her mother, Barbara Knight, had arrived from her home in Florida and was still waiting on Wednesday night to see her daughter.

Yet outside the Berry and DeJesus homes, balloons and welcome-home signs fluttered – happy signs of the community’s growing embrace for the long-missing girls.

RELATED: Amanda Berry, Cleveland Kidnapping Victim, Returns Home

A Time to Re-Connect

“Gina’s enjoying her family,” says her cousin Sylvia Colon. “She’s right now only spending time with our immediate family and her friends that she’s known since she was a little girl. No one else will have the opportunity to see her any time soon.” She added: “We just want some time to really connect with our loved one.”

Esparra, the family friend – who is also an anchor for Cleveland’s WOIO-TV and has been covering Gina’s disappearance since it began nine years ago – had never met Gina and knew her only from missing posters and composite sketches suggesting her age progression.

“We embraced,” she says. “I said, ‘Oh, you don’t look like your composites,’ and she just kind of smiled and said, ‘Yeah.’ ”

But even among the constant smiles inside the home on Wednesday afternoon, she says, “It was subdued. They’re doing the right thing, they’re giving Gina her space.”

“They’re not saying things can get back to normal,” Esparra says of Gina’s parents and family. “They know this is a long process.”

As one relative spoke to her in Spanish, Gina turned to her mom, Nancy Ruiz, and quietly explained that after her years in confinement, “I don’t understand Spanish anymore,” says Esparra.

But Gina had not forgotten another detail involving her father, Feliz DeJesus, who told Esparra what happened when he embraced his daughter for the first time just hours after her rescue on Monday.

“As she was hugging him, she said, ‘Dad, are you still smoking?’ ” says Esparra. “And he said that was the most beautiful word he’s ever heard: Dad.”

MORE: All the Stories on the Cleveland Kidnappings and the Girls’ Rescue

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