A couple dozen people had signed up to welcome back students to Goldsboro High School for the first day of school Monday.

More than twice that number showed up.

Then the rains began, moving the group under the covered crosswalk by the school commons.

The downpour and thunder were no match for the outpouring of thunderous enthusiasm that greeted students as they arrived.

Cheers. Chants. High-fives and hugs.

For the walkers ---- volunteers, armed with industrial-sized umbrellas ---- accompanied them to the entrance.

Mark Colebrook, founder of Operation Unite Goldsboro, was ringleader for the effort which drew men and women from the community and churches, as well as law-enforcement and school personnel.

"The rain has not deterred us," he said. "We're hoping that this will spur (people) to keep coming out."

"A bunch of us are coming to support the incoming seniors and the student body, and the administration," said Trebor Jackson. "We're here to encourage them and motivate them -- not only today but throughout. The whole thrust is to let these kids know that they have support."

The notion will continue in a variety of ways, from a mentoring piece as well as similar efforts at other schools.

"Also, parent involvement," Jackson added. "When they have parents night out, we're going to do the same thing then."

Colebrook said it's just another layer to enhance unity and support. Just as choral night draws a crowd and sports events have good attendance, he hopes to "pack it for academics," he said. "Open house. Anything the school has."

J.E. Collins, pastor of Goldsboro Chapel FWB Church, brought some of his deacons to support the returning students, including his deacon chairman, Luther Farmer, deacon Eddie Baker and trustee George Williams.

"I have children that come here, to Wayne School of Engineering, and my wife substitutes here," Farmer said of his spouse, Yolanda Williams Farmer. "As a matter of fact, she's subbing here today.

"We want to support the young people starting the school year."

Students had varying responses to the unique pep rally.

Ninth-graders Aspasia Gardner and Aryianah King admitted they were unaware of what awaited them at the school.

"There was a bunch of people," Aspasia said. "I thought they were freaking crazy at first."

"I thought it was a sorority at the school," Aryianah said. "I can't do people. I have anxiety, so that scared me and people were touching me."

As things unfolded, she said she figured out what was going on -- a welcoming ceremony.

In the aftermath, she said she was fine with it.

"I'm dry, I'm happy and I'm ready to start school," she said.

"I'm OK now," Aspasia said. "They were just welcoming me. A lot of schools don't do that."

At one point, a student who slipped through without fanfare was quickly brought back for her own personalized greeting.

Anija Bostic, a sophomore, said she asked someone what was going on and was told they were greeting people.

"I said, 'Well, I didn't get greeted,'" she said.

She was unprepared for what happened next, as she was promptly escorted back outside.

"They started yelling," she said. "I don't even remember what they said."

Senior Tyreona Thompson has been at the school since 10th grade, but this was definitely a different start.

It was a "bit unnerving," she said.

"But it was cool. I think it makes kids feel better about themselves."

Bernadette Hamilton was there not only to welcome new students, but to dole out hugs to some of her former students.

"I see these seniors all the way down to freshmen," said the retired Dillard Middle School teacher. "I just wanted them to know how much we care about them, just show them how much we love them."

As the announcement was made that the last bus had arrived, the chants swelled, "Here we go, Cougars! Here we go!"

"Awesome!" Colebrook said. "We'll be here all year."

The volunteers stayed put, prepared to walk through the halls and continue to be there for a couple more hours, he said.

"We need this at every school," said Edna Turner, an exceptional children's teacher at Eastern Wayne High School who lives near GHS and wanted to show her own support. "Oh, my God, this is awesome.

"A lot of the kids, I know. This is cool. This is really, really good."

Similar efforts are planned for other schools in the central attendance area, which resume later this month, Colebrook said.