One year ago, I was writing an article for the January/February edition of Camping Magazine called “Building Belonging in the Age of Anxiety.” My goal was to shine a spotlight on a facet of what we do as summer camp professionals, and to make the case that belonging is the greatest of all the outcomes we offer to the children we serve. I believe this with all my heart, and yet I had not fully understood the broad and very personal benefits of focusing on, and striving to deliver, belonging to others. I didn’t really get it until I arrived in San Diego for the ACA National Conference in February 2020. 

I rolled into the lobby of the conference center super early on that first morning thinking about meetings I had set up with colleagues and worrying about final touches to my slides for my presentation that was only a couple of days away. As I headed for the check-in desk stressing about all the details, I heard a voice that immediately made my heart sing. I turned to see Linda Erceg, a dear friend (to me and literally thousands), walking toward me and smiling ear to ear. I relaxed and my mind released all worries. We hugged in greeting (remember hugs?) and chatted a few moments to catch up before promising to grab coffee in the coming days. Between that heartwarming moment and the front desk, I ran into three other ACA friends from around the country, which galvanized for me why I come to the conferences and have since 2004 — belonging.

This year’s conference, for the first time ever, will be presented online, virtually, rather than in person. In the words of Vizzini from The Princess Bride, “INCONCEIVABLE!” However, I would passionately make the argument that this year might be the most important year ever to attend the ACA National Conference. We are a community, an industry, and a family that needs to recognize and build our collective sense of belonging. As we do, we’ll also be preparing ourselves for what will be the most important camp season in a generation.

By attending the ACA National Conference this year you’ll be able to connect with passionately dedicated friends who care deeply about what’s happening with your camps and your campers. Even though the hugs won’t be possible, we’ll still have the smiles and an opportunity to connect with those who inspire us, who educate us, who help us to remember our commitment to our mission. Being there virtually will, in the depths of winter, help us to remember those days in the sun and the endless summer that camp provides for us all. See you online! 

Matthew Cook, MSW, has spent the last 28 years in the camp industry, 20 of those as a camp director and executive director. Matthew started his professional camp career as the camp director at Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, a position he held for 13 years. In 2015, he took on the position of executive director at Teton Valley Ranch Camp in Jackson, Wyoming. Currently Matthew works at Sanborn Western Camps in Colorado as co-director of Big Spring Ranch for Boys. He is a trainer and facilitator who has presented workshops all over the country and abroad. Matthew consults on and teaches teambuilding, program development, safety and risk management, staff training and support, and his own Behavior Development Approach™ to help campers and staff reach their highest potential in their time at camp.

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