I was born a camp brat. From the age of six years old, I had no choice but to live the camp life as my mother began her career in camp administration. My early camp years were spent causing headaches to the staff as a child, wanting to be a staff member as a teen, and becoming a staff member as a young adult. These years cemented my love for camp and everything it stood for at a very young age.

Camp was always accessible and convenient to me growing up, and thus, it was easy for it to be such a major component of my life. Then something happened that ruins camp for a lot of people — the time to “grow up” and get “a real job.” I was enjoying my time at camp but was uncertain if it was a true professional career path for me. Luckily, that same year I attended my first ACA national conference and this uncertainty was resolved. Being around professional camp leaders, hearing from renowned speakers, and seeing the joy everyone had for their profession established that camp would be my “real job.”

While childhood cemented my love for camp, my involvement with ACA national conference affirmed and has maintained my love for camp as a profession. The following are aspects of the national conference I think the entire camp community should experience to help establish or reaffirm their love and commitment to the camp industry.

1. To Grow

For a professional in the camp or youth development field, there are few professional development opportunities that match the offerings of an ACA national conference. I have yet to attend a conference where I didn’t leave with a long list of impact items that I was excited to implement as soon as I got back to camp. The diverse sessions allow professionals across all levels of experience, job responsibility, and education to develop their tools and skill set. The welcoming, open environment created is conducive for sharing ideas, triumphs, and struggles for one another’s benefit. No matter how many times you attend a national conference, you grow personally and your camp grows professionally.

2. To Reenergize

Only individuals who have experienced camp can truly understand why working twelve-hour days (sometimes longer), in the blazing heat of the summer months, for shockingly low pay is fun. Experiencing this with your fellow camp staff members creates a bond that is indescribable. ACA national conference is the opportunity to be around individuals who share this understanding and bond — those who affirm the importance of camp experiences in our communities. To get this jolt in February makes for months of excitement leading up to the twelve-hour days, in the blazing heat, for little pay, of which I cannot wait to begin again.

3. To Unite (or Reunite)

At conference, you’ll find camp veterans sharing knowledge and expertise gained from years of experience in the field. You’ll find emerging professionals connecting through EPIC to ensure future success in the camp industry. Or best of all, you’ll see camp veterans connecting with emerging professionals to synergize the rich history of camp with the future leaders who will cultivate it. The gathering of the top professionals in our industry can start conversations, partnerships, and knowledge sharing that can result in future success in camps throughout our communities.

4. To Practice What We Preach

One of the elements of camp that has been most impactful to me is to take my job seriously, but not to take myself seriously. ACA national conference has this same element at its core. This year’s conference committee has been dedicated to ensuring outstanding speakers and professional development opportunities for participants, but has spent equal time lining up entertainment, socials, and fun activities to ensure everyone has a joyful, memorable experience. (Teaser: Mango Fandango on Wednesday night is sure to please.)

This February, I look forward to conference, not only because it marked my affirmation as a professional in the field, but also because no matter how many times I attend, I walk away each year benefitting from the outcomes mentioned above. ACA national conference has made a pretty remarkable imprint on my life — I found a “real job” that I truly enjoy, and I don’t even have to “grow up” to do it.

I hope to see you in Orlando this February 5–8 at the 2014 ACA National Conference!

Rob Cage is the director of Quest’s Camp Thunderbird in Orlando, Florida. He is a member of the 2014 Conference Team, serves on the ACA, Southeastern Local Council of Leaders, and lives in the greater Orlando area with his wife, Jay, whom he met and wed at camp.

Originally published in the 2014 January/February Camping Magazine