I imagine butterflies dancing in my stomach, a jumble of colors, probing antennae, and wings thrumming against my tensed muscles to the beat of my pounding heart. The mental picture of something beautiful and chaotic reminds me that these nerves I’m feeling are good, expectant, and understandable. Indeed, as the taxi pulls up and deposits me on the curb in front of the convention center, the beauty and chaos are all at once within me and surrounding me.

Camp people are everywhere. Flooding through the convention center doors. Greeting long-missed friends. Engaging in group hugs and animated conversations. Proudly representing their camps in bright-colored graphic T-shirts and broad smiles. The center’s halls and open spaces buzz with activity and anticipation.

This is the annual ACA National Conference and, in many ways, the collective soul of the camp community.

Hearing snippets of conversations and camp cheers followed by trills of laughter, I am briefly transported back to my childhood day camp experience. Free play on the extensive grounds of the Indianapolis Museum of Art opened up a world of imagination — as did making paper from scratch, starring in my first theater production, and crafting a working camera from an empty Quaker Oats canister. If seven-year-olds in the 1970s had highlight reels, my camp experience would have made up the lion’s share of mine. It was my first taste outside my family of true belonging. It was a confidence metamorphosis that made me feel like I could soar.

And this is why we are all here at the conference. To look back and to look forward — to reunite with our inner children and to share the wisdom of our adult selves for the good of camp and the individuals it serves. This is where affinity groups meet. Where difficult conversations are had. Where thoughtful lessons and heartwarming stories are recounted.

Camp is an amazing environment for child development, for safely pushing boundaries, and for discovering our best selves. It is also a paradox — traditional and cutting-edge at the same time, a senior citizen and a wide-eyed child all rolled into one. This annual conference is a place to do the hard work of figuring out how the old and the new best come together to create magic. This is a place where open dialogue and mutual respect affirm that our commonalities outweigh our differences — and together we can accomplish great things.

A group of butterflies is called a kaleidoscope. And that is camp — and by extension the ACA National Conference — a beautiful and slightly chaotic kaleidoscope of people, colors, sounds, sessions, and celebration.

And now the butterflies in my stomach are back as I contemplate all that I’ve learned and how much important work there is to be done before the next camp season.

Marcia Ellett, MPW, is the editor in chief of Camping Magazine.