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ELKIN, N.C. — They left everything behind, optimistic that being more than a thousand miles away from home would give them the break they desperately needed.

Zulimi De Jesus still remembers the moment she would be given a chance at a fresh start.

“That day we just decided, ‘Yeah, we’re going to go,’ so we left everything in Puerto Rico and we came,” she said.

Chatham Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Elkin needed nurses.

Michelle Fontaine, director of operations for Century Care Management – which owns Chatham Nursing & Rehab, got an idea.

“I thought of Puerto Rico,” she said.

Fontaine reached out to RDC Recruiting Services to find nurses looking for a chance to do what they love.

After Fontaine visited Puerto Rico for interviews, the final group of eight nurses was selected to have careers in Surry County.

Surry Community College partnered with Chatham Nursing & Rehab to give the nurses a chance to receive the necessary education to become a registered nurse locally.

“So that they can become certified nursing aids, be able to work in the nursing home and earn a living/an income, while they’re studying to take their North Carolina boards, which will be four to six months,” Fontaine said.

“This is the only class and it was designed specifically for these students,” said Debbie Cave, director of allied health at Surry Community College.

For the nurses, the opportunity is a new beginning.

Puerto Rico still faces significant challenges after Hurricane Maria hit the island more than two months ago.

The slow recovery has presented challenges not only in gaining access to necessities such has electricity, but also employment.

De Jesus was a nursing professor in Puerto Rico.

“It was awful, many people still don’t have houses. My students still don’t have houses, so it’s very difficult,” she said.

“They’ve been working as waitresses, sales positions, any jobs that they could find,” Fontaine said.

The nurses are grateful for the opportunity.

“I used to work in a hotel. I am a young graduate and when this opportunity came, I just couldn’t pass,” Juan Carrion said.

“We are a group that just wants to give love to our patients and do the best that we can,” De Jesus said.

The nurses will work at Chatham Nursing & Rehab for two years.

As part of the agreement, Century Care Management covered airfare and will also pay for housing and coursework expenses during the group’s first 60 days in Elkin.