Maitland couple wins treasure hunting trip to Vanuatu

Mike and Kellie Shellenberger traveled to the Vanuatu islands to dig up a buried treasure after winning an online competition.

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  • | 9:52 a.m. September 1, 2017
Mike and Kellie Shellenberger won a trip to the other side of the globe after winning the 2017 Brain Chase New Year's Resolution Challenge.
Mike and Kellie Shellenberger won a trip to the other side of the globe after winning the 2017 Brain Chase New Year's Resolution Challenge.
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The thrill of adventure. The mystery of what’s lying beneath the sand. The excitement of discovery.

Imagine venturing off on a real-life treasure hunt. That’s the opportunity one Maitland couple won after winning the 2017 Brain Chase New Year’s Resolution Challenge earlier this year.

In July, Mike and Kellie Shellenberger were flown to the Pacific islands of Vanuatu, where they stayed in a treehouse, hiked the Mount Yasur volcano and followed clues to a buried treasure: a genuine gold nugget encased in a commemorative plaque.

“It’s this random island that we would never have gone to ourselves; I had never even heard of Vanuatu,” Kellie said. “It was all kind of surreal, because it was like, ‘Oh wow, we just won a trip to the South Pacific.’ It really just happened.”


It all stemmed from a simple Facebook ad the family stumbled upon for Brain Chase, an educational, global treasure hunt based on completing learning challenges.

The games originally started as a way to keep students sharp during the summer. Children register in the online competition and fulfill a series of different reading, math and writing tasks each week, such as reading a book for 60 minutes or writing an essay. After a challenge is complete, a short animated video is unlocked with clues hidden within. It could be a series letters, numbers or a phrase.

The main objective of the com- petition is gather those clues from week to week and pinpoint on a digital, global map — within a two-mile radius — where the secret treasure is hidden.

The first competitor to submit the correct answer wins an all-expense-paid trip for two to that location to dig up the treasure, along with a $10,000 scholarship.

It began as a fun, educational tool for Mike and Kellie’s three children. Like all great treasure- hunting stories though, the family had no idea what kind of adventure was awaiting them.

“We bought it just because we like games and we like riddles and puzzles,” Mike said. “It was something fun that we could do together.”

The Brain Chase competitions became a family activity for the Shellenbergers, with Mike and Kellie helping their children gather the clues and trying to solve the mystery.

They came close multiple times to winning the treasure-hunting trip for their children but didn’t solve the riddles fast enough.


Last Christmas, Mike surprised his wife with a version of the game for adults, which has a focus on New Year’s resolutions instead of completing classroom activities.

The competition, themed after silent films, ran through six weeks from January through February.

After completing their various resolution challenges and putting the clues together from the videos, Mike and Kellie placed a pin on Vanuatu, a group of islands west of Fiji.

A week after the competition ended, the couple received a call telling them they had won.

“We were freaking out,” Kellie said. “It was a relief. We’ve done the program before, so the way that the clues worked, it felt right. Everything clicked into place.”

It took the couple 32 hours to travel from Orlando to Tanna in the Vanuatu Islands, including a nine-hour layover in Fiji. The couple’s treehouse offered a view of the glowing opening of the Mount Yasur volcano.

“We would never have picked this for ourselves, but it’s that adventure,” Kellie said. “It was so neat, just once in a lifetime. I feel like when we plan trips, it’s theme parks or places that all of these people on TripAdvisor have suggested because the food is good. Here, it’s adventure.”

Mike and Kellie eventually hunted down the treasure they had been seeking. A tour guide pro

vided them with a starting point, which led to a series of clues and landmarks.

The couple eventually found a spot on a beach with a shovel in the ground, where they dug up their award plaque for winning the Brain Chase competition.

“It was like, ‘Wow, we just dug up a buried treasure in the South Pacific,’” Kellie said. “That’s awesome.”

A tagline behind the Brain Chase competition is that “learning is the real treasure,” and Mike and Kellie couldn’t agree more. The competition not only brought the family together but also made learning something fun for their three children.

“For my daughter, it’s the first time I really saw a spark in her of self-directed learning versus, ‘I’m just going to do my homework because it’s what I’m supposed to do,’” Kellie said. “Now she’s curious, she’s learning about research. The learning and the family togetherness is the real treasure.”