Picture this scene in downtown Charleston Sunday afternoon.
Several thousand children are walking around with bright red backpacks filled with school supplies.
The students are with their parents, and they’re all excited about the start of another school year next week.
It sounds like an educator’s daydream but it was real.
At least 10,000 parents and children crowded Liberty Square and the Maritime Center Sunday afternoon for Charleston’s First Day Festival, an annual event for families to get free school supplies and for the city to encourage parents to get involved in their children’s education.
The festival, now in its 11th year, is organized by the Mayor’s Office for Children, Youth and Families. Mayor Joe Riley was walking around mingling with children and parents.
“It’s just a wholesome, happy, child-focused event, celebrating the beginning of a school year and reminding the children through this civic event how important their education is to the community,” Riley said.
Jason Nelson of Johns Island and his family were back for the third year with his two children.
“It’s exciting to see all the people here,” he said.
Corey Vanhorn of Summerville came with seven children, including relatives. This was their first year to attend.
“I think it’s a pretty decent event,” he said. “It gives everybody the opportunity to get prepared for school on Monday.”
Summerville is in Dorchester County. Organizers said they didn’t mind neighbors coming, too.
The free school supplies are a big draw, as is free admission to the aquarium, free boat rides on the harbor, games and food. Nearby parking was $1 for the day.
First Day started in 2003 at Joe Riley Stadium, moved to Liberty Square in 2004 and expanded to the Maritime Center in 2007. Attendance broke 10,000 in 2009. Organizers estimated at least that many came out Sunday.
About 5,000 backpacks were handed out under the Fort Sumter building. The first 4,000 were filled with paper, pencils, markers, erasers, index cards, pocket folders, spiral notebooks — all the supplies students are required to have when they show up for school.
“The cost that parents have to incur just to get children prepared for school, it’s incredible,” said Jacquie Kennedy, executive director of the Mayor’s Office for Children, Youth and Families. “It’s a tremendous help for the parents,” especially those with several children.”
Besides saving parents money, the free stuff also helps get the kids excited about school.
“Kids love having something new to start off the school year,” said Mindy Sturm, the city’s youth programs coordinator.
One family with five children was there at 8:15 a.m., almost five hours before the festival started, according to volunteers who showed up at 7:30 a.m. to start setting up tables.
It was a hot afternoon, with the temperature hovering just below 90 degrees. Volunteers walked around offering cups of water to children and parents.
About 400 volunteers work the event, according to coordinator Christina Messick.
“They come from all walks of life,” she said of the volunteers. “We couldn’t do it without them.”
The festival also encourages students and family to pay more attention to their health. The sidewalks outside the maritime center were transformed into a space called Healthy Foods 4 U.
Carolina Produce Company gave out boxes of fruits and vegetables. The Charleston County School District’s Nutrition and Food Services staff served serving up small portions of chicken nuggets, rice and vegetarian pizza. The Medical University’s Junior Doctors of Health program was showing students how to mix healthy snacks with grain cereal, granola and raisins.
“It’s about the whole child,” Messick said.
Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553 or twitter.com/dmunday.