The Prayer That Started Wonder Voyage

2019 marked the 20th anniversary of Wonder Voyage. To help celebrate, we will look at the history, traditions, and people who built this organization into the success it is today.

Like any great story, we start our journey with the people at the heart of the organization: Shawn and Cheryl Small.

By 1999, Shawn had spent the last 10 years in youth ministry. He loved serving youth and creating spaces where they might encounter the love of Christ in transformative ways. But there was a downside to church work. The bureaucracy of church life and the toxic environment he had been working under exhausted him. At 30 years old, love for the youth he served and the fear of financial insecurity was the only thing that kept him strapped to a job he knew was slowly draining him of life.

At this time, Shawn had a teenager and three kids under 10 at home. Shawn wanted to make it work at the church rather than diving into the abyss of job insecurity. Seeing the roadblocks in the church, Cheryl was ready for him to quit. The financial burden would be great, but she believed the constant struggle with the church’s leadership was unhealthy for the whole family.

Everything came to a head in January 1999 when Shawn was fired for questioning the leadership abuses he witnessed at the church. When he walked away, he was free on the outside but broken inside. Cheryl found a job to make ends meet, giving Shawn time to heal. Shawn started praying a prayer ripped from Psalm 51. He wanted a clean heart and renewed spirit, and he yearned for adventure. The call for serving others remained strong in his heart, and there was a need to contribute to the family finances. He asked himself a simple question: ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Shawn & Cheryl leading their first trip to Ireland in 1996.

Shawn & Cheryl leading their first trip to Ireland in 1996.

The only inkling of the next step came in Shawn’s love for travel. He had taken his youth groups on trips to Ireland, Guatemala, Alaska, Canada and New Orleans, and for him, travel was a metaphor for every human’s own spiritual journey. Those trips were the times he saw young people transform exponentially into their spiritual walk and humanity. Gifted in the practical, financial, and spiritual planning of trips, he decided to lead three teams that summer with his startup, Wonder Voyage Adventures. He had no money. No equipment. No plan. No staff. No advertising. No business degree. It was simply a holy hunch.

Next month we will look at the key people who walked with Wonder Voyage in the early years including the current board member who was the first to hire the new adventure company.

Until then, was there something in Shawn and Cheryl’s history that connected with you? Fear of the unknown? Starting over at 30? The connection between travel and your own spiritual journey? Join the conversation with a comment below.


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


  1. Chad Koons Chad Koons on February 18, 2019 at 10:39 am

    Upon meeting them in 2000, I remember being struck by how “real” Shawn and Cheryl were. People who loved Jesus without pretense, refusing to live within sacred and secular boxes. In working with them for several years, I had learned leadership, honesty, and adventure through their example. I have carried this example with me, using it within my own life and ministry to this very day. Shawn and Cheryl have indelibly colored my life, to which I am eternally grateful. Here’s to more history being written every day!

  2. Avatar Miguel on March 20, 2019 at 4:34 pm

    The connection between travel and my own spiritual journey and the spiritual journey of other felliw pilgrims.

    Also, starting over at 45! 🙂

    Thanks Shawn and Cheryl for a dangerous prayer, asking and answering yourself the important transcendent questions and for the courage to go for it!

    May The Wonder Voyage tribe increase and multiply!

    PS. Jaime, your writing rocks!

  3. Avatar Larry Luby on March 20, 2019 at 8:37 pm

    Shawn is a gentle soul. A Godly man that mirrors the Lord’s grace and mercy. Congratulations on reaching such an incredible milestone. May the Lord grant you many more years to be a blessing to those you serve.

  4. Avatar Cesar Ausejo on October 23, 2019 at 7:16 am

    I’ve meet Shawn and this story is very inspirational. Because you see God at worked the whole time! It was challenged me to do what I feel God is asking me to. Awesome story man! And a great result! I thank God for ministries like yours and people like you!

  5. Avatar The Galloways on October 23, 2019 at 8:48 pm

    Hey! Juan and I are in that picture above on one of the first trips! I remember once we committed you sent us a box ? in California with 1. An Irish Flag 2. A map 3. A copy of Steven Lawhead’s book Patrick and lots of other goodies! We were so excited! Bringing our California youth group “The Blast” to training in Dallas then on to New Ross, Kilkenny, Waterford and more is one of the things that inspired us to go and send our kids on more than 20 trips around the world combined since. Each one using all your fantastic ideas like “counting off” with big teams, leaving everything better than we found it, always choosing the road less traveled and of course Indiana Jones Points! Hugs to our dear friends Shawn and Cheryl who we have known since 1986!!! Soon to be 35 years! Time for another trip? Just so we can hang out and laugh a lot! ?

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