Spring is a time of renewal and hope, and nowhere is this hopefulness more evident than in our chosen profession. As camp professionals, we catalog time by the changing of the seasons. Summer speaks for itself as we manage that magnificent chaos that can be summer camp. Fall for many of us is a season of reflection and rest, and winter is the season of planning and preparation. But spring? Spring is the season when we begin putting it all together. Rejuvenated by our winter respite (what does a camp professional really do in the off-season anyway), we begin planting the seeds that we know will yield life-altering experiences for the people in our care. Seriously, who among us hasn’t had a vision of the successes to be had from our latest brainstorming session? Like the farmer at planting time imagining their harvest, we have the same optimistic vision.

For me, it is not a coincidence that the American Camp Association’s National Conference falls on the cusp of the spring season. After a long winter, the opportunity to get out of town to a warmer climate, catch up with old friends, make new friends, and learn, grow, connect, and build community all in the span of four or five days is a cathartic experience. Like the village of Brigadoon, a camp community rises out of the mist of a hotel ballroom. We laugh, we cry, we learn, we challenge each other in the most positive of ways, and we gain respect and love for our colleagues, who truly understand what it is we do. We learn perspective and understanding, compassion, and empathy. And at the end of the week, as our Brigadoon prepares to dissolve for another year, we fully grasp the idea that the world could use a little more camp. It is with this renewed hope that each of us returns to our home camps nurturing the seeds that were sown at the conference. We share our learning and the ideas that are unique to each of our individual programs. We drive our staff crazy talking about the experiences, and we reflect on the warmth of our shared experience.

Ours is a unique industry in that we have such an emphasis on continuing education and networking. What other industry offers so many opportunities for shared learning from peers who volunteer their time and talents? From conferences on the regional level to association conferences and mini-conference events, there are literally dozens of annual conferences each year, and every one of them provides the attendees the opportunity to learn and develop their professional skills.

I have attended many conferences in my almost 20 years as a camp professional, and I have loved every one, but for me, the ACA National Conference is my favorite. It is not just the educational sessions, nor is it the keynote speakers or exhibit hall — which are always outstanding. For me, the best part is the connections that are created — the chance to connect with the people who mean so much to me personally, the people whose work I have so much respect for, and the people whom I view as mentors and who do such magnificent work in the field of youth development. As much as I have gained as a professional attending workshops and sessions, I have learned even more just sitting down and talking to an old friend and mentor about camp.

One of my steadfast camp mentors (and one of my favorite people in the world) is Mary Rogers, who taught my Standards Visitors course many years ago. Every year at the national conference, we set aside an hour (or three) to sit and talk — about our camps, our families, our successes and failures as camp directors, and about the challenges we face working with youth in an ever-changing world. We solve all of the world’s problems (according to us) and nothing at all, but the chance to sit with an old friend and talk about our shared experiences and frustrations is in itself an educational experience. It reminds us of why we do what we do, and despite the frustrations that are all too common among camp professionals, it reminds us that we have the greatest jobs in the world.

Photo courtesy of American Camp Association’s archives

Dave Thoensen and his wife, Lucia, have owned and directed Tamarak Day Camp in Lincolnshire, Illinois, for 18 years, and he has been active in ACA from the beginning of his camp career. Dave is also co-conference chair for the 2018 ACA National Conference in Orlando.