First Day festivities: School starts today in Dorchester County followed by Berkeley and Charleston counties on Tuesday

Volunteer Veronica Ransom welcomed visitors Sunday to the First Day Festival at Liberty Square downtown. “It wouldn’t happen without our volunteers,” said coordinator Robyn Mulligan.

With assembly-line precision, squads of volunteers handed out thousands of bags of free school supplies Sunday in what organizers believe was the largest turnout yet for the city's First Day Festival.

More than 10,000 children and their families converged on Liberty Square and the Charleston Maritime Center for the area's largest back-to-school celebration.

"The kids have been so excited," said Malinda Terry, one of more than 400 volunteers.

Terry was stationed in a shady spot underneath the National Park Service's Fort Sumter Visitor Center. During past First Day celebrations, donated supplies were set out, forcing families to scramble and fill their bags before supplies were cleaned out.

"This year, we filled the backpacks ourselves, and we're putting the bags directly in the children's hands so they have a real sense of ownership," Terry said.

It was the first time Gelise and Raymond Ahl took their six children to the festival. "When you have that many kids, it's a really big help getting those school supplies," she said.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said it's important to create positive rituals to celebrate the new school year.

He said the idea for the festival was born in New England after leaders there questioned why there were big celebrations to mark the opening of deer-hunting season but none for schools.

Riley learned about the First Day movement from the mayor of Nashville and organized the first one in Charleston in 2003. Since then, crowds have grown steadily, except for years when storms kept people away.

"This wonderful event is even bigger than before, and there's a real feeling of joyfulness with grandparents and parents here with their children," Riley said as children gathered around to pose for a photo. Jacquie Kennedy, the event's coordinator, estimated that between 10,000 and 11,000 people would attend.

Sunday's festival included martial arts demonstrations, boat rides, dance exhibitions and other activities. The S.C. Aquarium opened its doors for free, and by 4 p.m., more than 4,500 people had gone through the aquarium's gates, said Lauren McDaniel, guest services manager. That's about twice the normal daily attendance for this time of year, she said.

A short walk away at the Charleston Maritime Center, volunteers offered food and back-to-school nutritional tips. "It's important for us to be here," said Absalom Thomas, a part-time chef at Alluette's Cafe in Charleston who handed out plates of sauteed vegetables and rice. "We're trying to show that children can have other options than mac and cheese and fried chicken tenders."

School begins today in Dorchester County and Tuesday in Berkeley and Charleston counties.

Tony Bartelme is senior projects reporter for The Post and Courier. He has earned national honors from the Nieman, Scripps, Loeb and National Press foundations and is a three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Reach him at 843-937-5554 and @tbartelme