When Gina DeJesus disappeared while on her way home from school in 2004, her family was at a loss. The simplest day-to-day tasks became overwhelming for them as they remained focused on finding their loved one.
“No one gave us a book on how we were supposed to go on or what we were supposed to do,” Mayra DeJesus, Gina’s older sister, tells PEOPLE exclusively. “We felt like we were left in the dark a lot of the time.”
It has been more than five years since Gina DeJesus, along with Amanda Berry and Michelle Knight, were rescued from a Cleveland home where Ariel Castro held her captive for nearly a decade. Since then, Gina and her family have been thinking about how to help the families who are left waiting after loved ones have been abducted.
“I want to help families because my family didn’t have anything. They didn’t get help,” Gina, now 28, tells PEOPLE. “My parents didn’t have people actually helping them do the flyers and stuff. We could actually help other families with all of that instead of them worrying and freaking out.”
Gina and her cousin Sylvia Colon have launched a nonprofit group tentatively called The Center for Missing and Abducted & Exploited Children/Adults. They plan to create a one-stop shop for families who are searching and coping while they search for their loved ones, but first, they’re focused on creating a Board of Directors.
Colon says they’ve made presentations across the city and hope to launch in the new year. They will focus on having their first board meeting by the end of the first quarter so they can plan to raise money and hire an executive director and business manager by the end of the second quarter. Gina’s sister Mayra is the group’s social media manager.
“We’re definitely in the infancy stage,” says Colon.
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But the group has made significant steps in their quest to help others by setting up a business office in newly-renovated manufacturing building, which sits on Seymour Avenue — the same street and neighborhood where Gina was held captive.
The group wants to make sure other families in similar situations have somewhere to turn to ask for help and resources.
Mayra says her family could have used a place like this when Gina was missing.
“Life goes on even though that person is gone. It’s a balancing act of continuing to look for that person and not feeling guilty,” she says. “In order to survive, you must do those day-to-day activities. There’s just nothing out there like we want to do for families.”
She continues: “Even simple things like buying food. A lot of times when you go through this, you stop eating. You’re not paying attention to what you need to go on everyday,” she recalls. “It’s like a twilight zone. You’re just existing. You’re not living.”
The group is passionate and hopeful for the new year and the new challenges it will bring. Gina is excited about the holidays, she says, but is looking forward to helping others.
“I just want to give back,” she says.