It was seven years ago when I attended my first ACA National Conference in sunny Orlando. Seven years ago when I showed up not even knowing what region/section I belonged to. Seven years since I was the wide-eyed "newbie" who didn't know a soul. Well, I've come a long way since then, and I can say without any doubt that my first conference experience is why I am so involved in ACA today.
Emerging Professionals in Camping (EPIC) was the first group that I connected with at that conference. It was a group of cool novices just trying to find their way and get involved. It was my first real chance to network, and it was so much fun! Learning that I was not alone and that there were other new directors my age out there was a giant relief. I came back from that conference with a new love for camp, an appreciation for an industry that loves sharing ideas, and a desire to get more involved with ACA. I shared my experience with my 70-year-old mentor and she told me that's why ACA is so special. I spent the rest of spring preparing and just kept my head above water my first summer as executive director at Whippoorwill Farm Day Camp. I constantly referred back to my notes from the conference and stayed connected with those new friends via social media. I had made a start but wanted to know and do more.
Fall rolled around and it was time for the Heart of the South Conference. It was there that I began networking with those who were geographically closer to me. Over the next few years I attended multiple conferences and continued getting more involved. I eventually began planning the Heart of the South Conference and joined our Local Council of Leaders as the professional development chair. With every event or meeting that came around, I learned more about myself, tips on how to run my camp more successfully, and the value of networking and volunteering. I went from the newbie who didn't know anyone or anything to the person helping the newbies.
When I think back to that first ACA experience, I'm overwhelmed with gratitude for what this organization can do for its members. In some industries, professionals keep tricks of the trade from their competitors so they can keep the upper hand. That is not what you find with camp people. Once you get them talking about what worked and what didn't at their camp, you can't get them to stop! This is why, during any ACA conference, the hallways, bars, and sitting areas are always filled with camp professionals. No one wants to stop sharing. We all have one common goal: to change children's lives through camp programing. If we figure out what works and how to do it, why wouldn't we want to share that kind of knowledge with everyone who cares? In addition to all those willing to share invaluable information, we also have an endless amount of volunteers.
It can be intimidating to walk into a room and not know anyone. As a volunteer, however, you immediately have an in. ACA tells us over and over that volunteers are at the heart of the organization — from Standards Visitors to conference hospitality desk operators, they play a huge role in helping ACA and the camp industry succeed.
Now I know camp people are busy people. I still cringe when people ask me what I do the rest of the year, as if camp magically puts itself together. We are always planning, plotting, cleaning, organizing, talking, hiring, promoting, and creating! We never stop and neither does camp. The word "volunteer" can immediately be associated with time — something we don't always feel we have enough of. You are probably reading this thinking, "Here it comes. She's going to ask us to do something, to sign up for yet another thing." And you're right! I'm going to ask you to think about your time in ACA — to think about the countless people who answered your questions, who pointed you in the right direction, who shared years worth of knowledge. Think about those selfless volunteers who wanted to make your job and ACA experience a little bit easier. It is now your turn to be that person for someone else. I'm not saying you have to sign up for ten volunteer shifts at the national conference (although you certainly can by visiting www.ACAcamps.org/conference/ volunteer). But I am encouraging you to step out of your comfort zone and realize that volunteering with your local council, helping at a networking event, getting involved with an affiliate group — these are all things that can help others and yourself. So whether you are the newbie or the long-time participant, get out there and meet someone new, ask a question, share a story, and get involved!
Shanelle Lambert-Rauh is the executive director at Whippoorwill Farm Day Camp. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Photo courtesy of Whippoorwill Farm Day Camp, Fairview, Tennessee.