This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on April 13, 2014.
Her foot was bleeding profusely after she snagged it on a rusty nail. She was on a fishing boat off the coast of a Honduran island in 2010, and the man she’d been dating for just six months took off his white linen pants, wrapped her foot in them and calmly carried her to shore.
That was the moment Heather Grabowski, now 29, knew this was the man she wanted to marry.
He is Bartlomiej Jan Skorupa, now 34, founder of a San Francisco nonprofit called Groundwork Opportunities, or GO for short, which invests in community leaders in developing countries who are working to end poverty.
Most of Skorupa’s international travel was for GO projects, but this trip to Honduras was a vacation. Skorupa carried Grabowski to the beach, and women from the village came out to clean and bandage her wound.
“We had very little recourse other than trusting the local people,” Skorupa said. “Heather was very calm. She stayed positive and level-headed, and I remember specifically thinking she was strong. Everything I wanted in a life partner.”
Strong isn’t how Grabowski remembers feeling. “I couldn’t even look,” she said. “For weeks afterward, he bandaged, cleaned and cared for my foot. I knew he was the one, and he’d be by my side always.”
Skorupa knew something about trusting in a developing country’s seemingly primitive medical care. In 2007, he left a demanding business management job to volunteer with a marine conservation group in Madagascar. After a dive, he suffered a corneal ulcer in his eye and a hurricane prevented him from evacuating to the United States.
After a harrowing journey from the coast to a poor village, a local doctor with very limited equipment successfully removed the ulcer and saved Skorupa’s vision.
The experience inspired Skorupa to invest in local leaders, like this doctor, who lacked resources but had skills and a vision for change in their country. He returned to the United States and founded GO with friend Jennifer O’Connor.
In 2008, Skorupa visited O’Connor and met her new roommate, Grabowski.
“There was this little blond girl sitting cross-legged and wearing pajamas and glasses,” he remembers. “I instantly knew there was something there.”
Grabowski, a marketer and event planner at Thomson Reuters, began volunteering with GO. She and Skorupa were friends for a year before he asked her out. When he finally did, she didn’t understand that it was a date and assumed he was inviting her to hang out in a group. But the happy hour for two led to dinner and then after-dinner drinks.
The couple dated for three years, and Skorupa decided to pop the question on a GO trip to Africa. He waited until the last day of their three-week trip when the couple had some time alone at the beach in Zanzibar, Tanzania. He left to get drinks and returned 20 minutes later with two beers and a bouquet of flowers on a tray.
“That was very Bart,” Grabowski said. “Not out of the norm.”
Skorupa suggested they take a self-portrait and stood behind her holding the camera in one hand and the ring in the other. She didn’t see the ring until she looked at the photo. Just as they were celebrating, a wave swept away the tray, the drinks and the flowers. The ring and camera were spared.
The couple live in Noe Valley, but most of Skorupa’s family lives in Poland and Grabowski’s lives in Michigan, so choosing a location for the Oct. 25, 2013, wedding proved difficult. To pull off the small, intimate ceremony they wanted, they decided to return to the scene of the proposal. A Google search led them to two Tanzanian wedding planners who orchestrated the entire event over e-mail and a single phone call.
Thirty-two friends and family members from the United States, Europe and Africa attended, and the couple also planned celebrations in Michigan, Poland and San Francisco for those who couldn’t make the trip to Africa.
The ceremony took place in the outdoor ruins of an old Anglican church, and a local choir sang. The couple had asked their Ugandan friend Peter, GO’s first partner, to officiate. He had trained as a Catholic priest before founding his GO farming co-op, and his biggest regret about leaving the priesthood was that he’d never get to perform the holy sacraments. The wedding gave him that chance.
After the ceremony, a jazz duo played. At sunset they all boarded a sailboat bound for a reception on the beach where a bonfire, dancers and drummers greeted them. The men had to carry the women off the boat so their dresses wouldn’t get wet.
“Not exactly the entrance to Ballroom A,” Grabowski’s maid of honor joked.
They dined on a seafood barbecue and a three-tiered wedding cake. By 11:30 p.m., the tide had gone out, so they turned the lights and speakers toward the ocean and had a dance party.
While in Zanzibar, the couple took their wedding party to a school that is now a GO partner, and they made a donation to the school in lieu of wedding favors.
“It meant a lot to show our guests what we spend so much of our lives doing,” Skorupa said. “With whatever you’re doing, you can find a way to give back.”