Returning From the Peace Corps to Find Love Close to Home

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Online dating felt like a foreign concept to Holly Van Groll when she returned from a more than two year term with 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 was settling into a new home and role with the organization in Houston, Texas, Ms. Van Groll decided to try it anyway. She ambivalently created a profile on Coffee Meets Bagel, a dating app she appreciated because its list of preferences included her identity of “nonreligious.”

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.

It had been nine years since she had last seen him, though, so she sent a screenshot to a friend, who confirmed that Mr. Bennett, also 32, was the person Ms. Van Groll thought he was: the best friend of her prom date, and a member of her larger friend group back then.

In high school, Mr. Bennett was one year ahead of Ms. Van Groll, and they lost touch after he graduated. 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 in College Station, where she received a bachelor’s degree and then completed a master’s program in international agricultural development.

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

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

Mr. Bennett, who had a cat named Lemon, also took interest in Charlie, the Basenji Ms. Van Groll had adopted while in Zambia.

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

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Following 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.

The first time Ms. Van Groll brought Charlie to Mr. Bennett’s apartment to meet Lemon, the cat let out “such a deep, guttural scream, it was like the Devil himself trying to escape her body,” said Ms. Van Groll, who spent that night in the living room with Charlie, while Mr. Bennett and Lemon stayed in his bedroom.

Steadily, after enough exposure, the animals developed a truce. By May 2018, the couple felt that they and their pets were ready to move in together.

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

In 2020, when Ms. Van Groll was offered a promotion to become a regional recruitment supervisor at the Peace Corps’s office in Oakland, Calif., both she and Mr. Bennett were excited by the prospect of living somewhere new.

While visiting the Bay Area together that August to find an apartment, he proposed. By the end of September, they and their pets had moved to Oakland, and Mr. Bennett had started in his current job as a senior product manager at Turntide Technologies, a company that specializes in making buildings more energy efficient, in Sunnyvale, Calif.

The couple were married on Feb. 27 at Park Winters, an inn and events venue in Winters, Calif. Samantha Alvis, a friend of the bride who was ordained by the 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 thought up by Ms. Van Groll, who is taking her husband’s surname.

Of the bride, the groom said, “She has more love in her heart than anyone I’ve ever met.”