In 2014, Derek Owens and Chelsea Segal randomly sat next to each other at the orientation session for their two-year stint in the Peace Corps. “Two of you will get married, it always happens,” the facilitator told the cohort of 48 people on the crest of their placement in Panama.
“I was certain it would not be me,” said Mr. Owens, now 32.
After growing up in the small town of Bluffton, S.C., Mr. Owens graduated from Clemson University in 2011, and then worked in a family-owned printing company. “I went into the Peace Corps wanting to learn more about myself and the people I would be living with,” he said. “I was absolutely committed to not getting attached.”
Ms. Segal, now 30, felt similarly. After a childhood in Miami, she attended the University of Michigan, from which she graduated in 2013. Her passion for social justice work was born in college when she volunteered in juvenile detention centers where she facilitated creative writing projects.
Yet during their first weeks in Panama City, the couple lingered together after training sessions. After three months, they had a connection but then were placed in villages eight hours apart by bus. Neither knew how — or if — their relationship would survive. Mr. Owens’s mud shack didn’t have electricity and getting a cell signal entailed a hike, good weather, and some luck.
Still, they made contact as often as possible, leaning on each other hard as they faced the isolation and challenges of their work. Visits were carefully choreographed, both because of the multiple bus rides and the clash of cultural customs with their host families who bore witness to their budding relationship. For Mr. Owens’s birthday Ms. Segal, foraged for cheese and cooked up a “passable” version of his favorite dish, lasagna. And Mr. Owens skillfully wielded a machete to rescue Ms. Segal from the invasion of a grapefruit sized tarantula which had made a home in her cement-block bedroom.
After a year, Mr. Owens was still torn about having become involved despite his best intentions, but Ms. Segal could envision a future together. For a week Mr. Owens took to his hammock in the attempt to imagine a life without Ms. Segal. “I couldn’t, but more important, I didn’t want to,” he said. The two soon committed both to each other and to another year in Panama.
The couple returned stateside in 2017 and now live in Oakland, Calif. Both work in the nonprofit sector as partnership managers — Mr. Owens for iMentor, and Ms. Segal for AI4ALL. Their July 17 wedding was officiated by Jeanne Sommer, who was ordained by the Presbyterian Church (USA). It was held at the Hidden River Events, a rustic farm venue surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains in Swannanoa, N.C., just outside of Asheville, and was attended by 120 family and friends, including one from Panama. A summer rainstorm kicked up right before the ceremony causing guests to shift into an outdoor tent. When a downpour halted the exchange of vows, the crowd sat in silence for several minutes while the rain beat down. “Magical,” Mr. Owens said of the moment.
“Everyone felt present and entirely with us,” said Ms. Segal who, in her vows, said how apt the word partner is for their relationship. “We are really a team,” she said.