Offers pour in to help Cleveland women freed from captivity

CLEVELAND (REUTERS) - Offers of help are pouring in from around the world for three Cleveland women who were kidnapped and held in captivity for a decade, with people offering cash, furniture and even use of a vacation home to help them rebuild their lives.

Three members of the Cleveland City Council have set up a fund to provide financial assistance to Amanda Berry, 27, Gina DeJesus, 23, and Michelle Knight, 32.

"It's a big healing process that is beginning," Councilwoman Dona Brady said on Saturday.

Since it was established earlier this week, the fund has raised more than US$50,000, said Cleveland Councilman Brian Cummins, who helped arrange the Cleveland Courage Fund, which is administered by a non-profit organisation.

Ariel Castro, a 52-year-old former school bus driver, has been arrested and charged with kidnapping and raping the three women while keeping them locked up in a rundown Cleveland home.

DNA tests released on Friday identified Castro as the father of Berry's 6-year-old daughter, who was born in captivity.

The Cuyahoga County prosecutor also plans to seek murder charges, which could carry the death penalty, against Castro because police say there is evidence Knight suffered forced miscarriages.

Ms Berry and Ms DeJesus, along with Berry's daughter, left the hospital earlier this week and have been reunited with their families. Knight, who is estranged from some of her family members, according to her grandmother, was discharged from the hospital on Friday and went into seclusion.

Ms Knight was kidnapped in 2002 at the age of 20; Ms Berry in 2003 the day before her 17th birthday; and Ms DeJesus in 2004, when she was 14. During their captivity, police said, the women endured beatings, rapes and at times confinement in ropes and chains.

Ms Berry told police that her escape on Monday had been her first chance to break free in the 10 years she was held, seizing an opportunity during Castro's momentary absence. With the help of neighbours, she and her daughter broke free, and police freed the other two women.

Mr Cummins said the fund for the three women had received donations from people across the United States, as well as Canada, France and Australia.

The money will not go directly to the victims, but be distributed to organizations to help the women pay for therapy, doctor's visits, housing and other expenses, Mr Cummins said.

City officials said they were working to respond to a flood of emails with offers of assistance from companies, businesses and individuals.

Business owners have offered free healthcare, beauty and spa services and furniture, said Johanna Hamm, a City Council administrative official.

One offer was an all-expenses-paid stay at a lakeside vacation home, she said.

A Cleveland pizzeria said it planned to donate all the money from its sales on Thursday to the Cleveland Courage Fund.

Workers at Angelo's Pizza also said they intended to give their hourly wages that day.

In a message posted on the fund's Facebook page, one woman said she hoped the women would one day recover from their horrific ordeal.

"If everyone donated just one dollar, it would make a difference in these girls' lives," said June Barter Green."Maybe someday they can live a normal life."

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