Celebrating Susan Damiano

Susan Damiano was excited and nervous when she exited with her youth group at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci–Fiumicino Airport. She had planned a few pilgrimages as a veteran youth minister, but this was the first she had led. She sighed with relief, knowing the organization she partnered with, Wonder Voyage, had a superb reputation. What was more exciting was the Voyage Guides leading the trip were the founders of Wonder Voyage, Shawn and Cheryl Small. Susan’s time planning had been pleasant but entirely over the phone. Susan felt good about the voyage but was trying to figure out how to co-lead with strangers.

If you don’t know Susan, she loves people. Her gift of love emanated through her youth. As the team met Shawn and Cheryl in the arrival hall, the youth surrounded the Smalls and gave them huge hugs. Susan stood back with a smile. This was going to be a good pilgrimage.

Italy Meets Susan

A few hours later, the team stopped for lunch in a local cafeteria in Florence.

Italians are known for their love for a good meal. You never, ever come between an Italian and their pasta.

Susan… well, Susan is Susan.

Playfully unaware of her vocal resonance when having fun, Susan lightheartedly teased and bantered with her jet-lagged students. As the kids stood in line with their trays, Susan bumped their arms and laughed aloud as they began to drop food to the floor. The Italians in the restaurant gave the group the stink-eye, but Susan was too busy enjoying her team to notice. These loud Americans were disturbing their eating experience!

Shawn, oversensitive to the stares, promptly approached Susan and whispered in her ear, “STOP IT! You’re embarrassing us.”

Susan was deflated. She ate in silence.

Moving Forward

Despite the rocky start, the team had a magical time in Florence. By the time they reached the region of Perugia a few days later, everything was clicking better than Susan could have hoped. As the team followed in the footsteps of St Francis, they dove deep into the stories of his life, and moments of wonder abounded.

They were staying at a lovely family-run hotel, a former monastery, below the white-walled city of Assisi. Eating out on the back patio every night, the group was treated to slow, relaxed Italian feasts. This was Italy at its best.

Connecting Through Watermelon Seeds

On the 4th of July, in honor of the U.S. holiday, the hotel served an American-themed meal with a local twist. At the end of the meal, they sliced up a watermelon for dessert. Susan was conversing when she heard Andrew, one of her students, say, “Ouch! Gross!” Something had flown across the table like a bullet. More projectiles started flying and hitting students.

Susan couldn’t believe her eyes. Shawn, the guy who scolded her for fooling around in an Italian cafeteria, was spitting seeds at the students. She was perplexed. Within seconds, everyone was in a seed-spitting contest. That is the moment Susan said, “These are my people. This is my tribe.” 

Within a few years, Susan was leading trips for Wonder Voyage. She loves leading students into encounters with the holy, playing goofy games, and diving into the cultures they are visiting. She loves to tease, talk loudly, and laugh with the best of them. 

But if you ever get in a seed-spitting contest with her, be warned–she’s had some practice.


Jamie has been involved with Wonder Voyage for over 15 years. Her passion is connecting givers with worthwhile project as our Legacy Director.


  1. Avatar Susan Damiano on May 13, 2024 at 7:37 am

    Thanks 🥰😂

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