Launch Year

Last month we looked at the prayer that started Wonder Voyage. Now we trek through the maiden year of Shawn and Cheryl Small’s new venture through the lenses of three elements that set Wonder Voyage apart from every other organization in the world: relationships, community, and the God-encounters that we call moments of wonder.

Our journey begins in Ireland with John and Sonia Spencer.

Immrama Performance.

Immrama Performance.

The Smalls frequently visited Ireland beginning in 1996. They led a youth pilgrimage in south Ireland performing a play Shawn wrote, Immrama. Nick Spencer, an intern for Shawn, suggested he stay at Nick’s parents on the preparation trip. There was an immediate connection, so much so, that the Spencers opened their home to the team.  Another voyage in 1998 brought youth from Texas and N.J. on another tour of Immrama and a punk band that performed in clubs at night. In 1999, Shawn shared his heart for starting a pilgrimage organization, and the Spencers listened to him and encouraged him. It’s no surprise that Shawn’s maiden overseas voyage with his new travel company landed the team on the Spencers’ doorstep.

Michael Fleming and Pete M. were the next key relationships. Shawn, Michael, and Pete were all youth pastors at three different churches in Dallas, and they formed their own mission trip cohort.  Leading teams of teens to New Orleans together became their favorite event of the year.  In 1999,  Shawn led Michael’s and Pete’s groups to New Orleans and one more trip to Ireland with youth from around Dallas.

By the end of that first summer, Shawn was hooked. Prepared to go all-in on with Wonder Voyage, he felt that the next step was transitioning from an adventure travel company to a non-profit since his primary interest was leading churches. The problem was, he didn’t know where to start.

Shawn read Non-profits for Dummies and started to understand how much of an uphill battle he was in for. With no money, no physical assets, and no knowledge of running an independent organization, no job, and bucketloads of faith, he turned back to what he knew best: relationships and community.

Scouring the Rolodex of contacts in his mind, he invited David and Kim to his home for dinner. As artists and risk-takers,  Shawn prayed they’d be able to grasp his vision and pray with him about next steps. It worked. The couple latched onto the vision immediately, but they took it a step further. After leaving Shawn’s home, they went to an electronics store, and returned three hours later with the gift of a computer and printer.

Wonder Voyage had its first physical assets.

The gates of wonder opened, and the support structure the Smalls needed started falling into place.

Mike and Pam were parents that worked with Shawn while he was in youth ministry. As soon as Shawn shared his heart for Wonder Voyage, the couple became the first recurring donors. Shawn’s former boss, Mark S., was the second consistent donor. As the funds started trickling in, Shawn started to believe this dream could actually become a reality.

Then came Jim and Doug. Both men were parents in Shawn’s former youth ministry and successful business owners. Over coffee, Shawn shared his vision with Jim and Doug, asking them for business wisdom in starting a non-profit and what the initial financial investment would be. Just a few days later the men called and covered all of the significant legal fees for Wonder Voyage to become a non-profit.

Though they lacked almost everything required to found a non-profit, the Smalls were rich with community. And, together, the community celebrated as Wonder Voyage Adventures became the non-profit Wonder Voyage Mission on January 1, 2000.

Since that time, wonder has abounded throughout the ever-growing Wonder Voyage community. To help celebrate our anniversary, we are hosting a 20 Years of Wonder campaign. We are looking for stories of wonder experienced during one of our pilgrimages. Your story is part of the rich history that makes this community so unique. Join the celebration by submitting your story of wonder today.


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

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