updated 05/09/2013 AT 8:00 AM ET
•originally published 05/09/2013 AT 2:35 PM ET
She looks different, and no wonder.
Gina DeJesus, found alive this week, was barely a teenager when she was abducted nine years ago. Today, she is thinner, paler and with shorter hair than when she was last seen. But her family knows she’s still the Gina they knew.
“She was 14. She looked like a 14-year-old. Now she’s a woman. She’s a 23-year-old woman,” Lydia Esparra, a family friend who visited DeJesus in her home Wednesday, told PEOPLE.
Gina is “very tiny, very petite, and her hair is shorter,” Esparra said. “When she was kidnapped she had longer hair, but now she has shorter hair Despite being skinny, she looked very healthy. She obviously doesn’t have a lot of skin color, because she’s been living in a house with no sun for nine years. But she looks amazing. Amazing.”
Esparra, a reporter with WOIO-TV in Cleveland who covered Gina’s disappearance from the start, made only small talk with her on Wednesday, feeling it wasn’t the time to ask anything more. She said the family is elated but “subdued” and that they are giving Gina the space she needs.
“They know who she is. They know inside she’s still Gina,” Esparra said. “They know she’s been through something horrific This is a long process. These people are patient. They waited nine years. Now that they have her, the patience is going to continue.”
Gina has been seen in public only briefly – covered by a neon yellow hoodie and flashing a thumbs-up sign as she arrived home and was rushed inside. Her parents, Felix and Nancy, told reporters they couldn’t believe she was back – and yet, in some ways, they could believe it.
“I knew my daughter was out there alive,” Felix said. “I knew she needed me, and I never gave up – never gave up searching for her.”
Added Nancy, in Spanish: “This is the best Mother’s Day I could ever have.”
Reporting by JEFF TRUESDELL