Returning from the Peace Corps to find love closer to home

Online dating seemed like a foreign word to Holly Van Groll as she returned from more than two years in the Peace Corps in Zambia, where she lived without electricity and the nearest internet connection was a four-hour bus ride away.

But in August 2016, as she settled into a new home and role with the organization in Houston, Texas, Ms. Van Groll decided to give it a try anyway. She created an ambiguous profile on Coffee Meets Bagel, a dating app that she loved because its preference list included her identity as “non-religious.”

When she saw Gregg Bennett’s profile, Ms. Van Groll, 32, immediately thought she recognized him from Harker Heights High School in Harker Heights, Texas.

However, it had been nine years since she last saw him, so she sent a screenshot to a friend, who confirmed that Mr. Bennett, also 32, was who Ms. Van Groll thought he was: the best friend of her prom date and a member of her larger circle of friends at the time.

In high school, Mr. Bennett was a year ahead of Ms. Van Groll, and after he graduated, they lost touch. He went to the University of Texas at Austin, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering. She enrolled at Texas A&M University at College Station, where she received a bachelor’s degree and then completed a master’s program in international agricultural development.

After reconnecting via the app, they met in person in September at Cottonwood, an outdoor bar and grill in Houston, where Mr. Bennett also lived at the time. They stayed more than five hours.

Aside from feeling familiar with him, Ms. Van Groll appreciated how engaging he was. “Gregg asked far more insightful questions about the Peace Corps” than most people, said Ms. Van Groll.

Mr. Bennett, who had a cat named Lemon, was also interested in Charlie the Basenji whom Ms. Van Groll had adopted in Zambia.

Their casual relationship that day came as a “pleasant surprise” to Mr. Bennett, who said that “online dating has kind of made me jaded.”

[Click here to binge read this week’s featured couples.]

After a second date at a Mexican restaurant, they made plans to attend the Texas Renaissance Festival with some friends. When he dropped her off at home after the event, they shared their first kiss.

But the ease of their early relationship ended the day the two introduced their pets.

When Ms. Van Groll first brought Charlie to Mr. Bennett’s apartment to meet Lemon, the cat “let out such a deep, throaty scream as if the devil himself was trying to escape from her body,” Ms. Van said Groll, they spent the night with Charlie in the living room while Mr. Bennett and Lemon stayed in his bedroom.

After sufficient exposure, the animals steadily developed a truce. In May 2018, the couple felt they and their pets were ready to move in together.

“Gregg isn’t afraid to be authentically himself,” said Ms. Van Groll, adding that he “gives me the foundation to be more of who I am.”

When Ms. Van Groll was offered a promotion to regional recruiting director at the Peace Corps office in Oakland, California in 2020, both she and Mr. Bennett were excited at the prospect of living in a new location.

In August, when he was visiting the Bay Area together to find an apartment, he proposed. By the end of September, she and her pets had moved to Oakland, and Mr. Bennett had assumed his current position as senior product manager at Turntide Technologies, a company that specializes in making buildings more energy efficient, in Sunnyvale, California.

The couple wed on February 27 at Park Winters, an inn and venue in Winters, California. Samantha Alvis, a friend of the bride who was ordained by Universal Life Church, officiated before 69 guests, most of whom were vaccinated.

At the ceremony, Mr. Bennett’s grandmother served as the flower girl, a special gesture dreamed up by Ms. Van Groll, who takes her husband’s surname.

Of the bride, the groom said, “She has more love in her heart than anyone I have ever met.” Returning from the Peace Corps to find love closer to home

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