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At Strolling Thunder event in Washington D.C., an Alexander County family promotes expansion of Early Head Start

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The halls of Congress were not meant for families to traverse with strollers.

Narrow entryways flanked by security apparatus, tiny elevators from the early 20th century, and family restrooms or nursing spaces buried deep in the underbellies of congressional office buildings make it clear that no one expected families to bring their children to meet with lawmakers. 

But that’s what Alexander County native Hayleigh Marshall — and families from across the country — came to Washington, D.C., to do on April 30, 2024.

With her 9-month-old son, Callum, gurgling good-naturedly in his stroller, Marshall made her way to the offices of North Carolina Republican senators Thom Tillis and Ted Budd and Rep. Patrick McHenry to advocate for expansion of Early Head Start and greater investment in early care and education for babies like Callum. 

Her family took a train from her hometown of Taylorsville to participate in Strolling Thunder, an annual day of advocacy organized by ZERO TO THREE — a national nonprofit focused on giving infants and toddlers a strong start in life — as part of its Think Babies campaign. 

Marshall was selected to represent the state by the North Carolina Early Education Coalition, which manages the Think Babies NC Alliance, to remind policymakers to prioritize the needs of infants, toddlers, and their families. 

“I want to be an advocate,” Marshall said. “I want to be there for the underdog.”

Student, parent, advocate

Marshall isn’t new to advocacy. At age 20, she’s already an experienced advocate for children and families in her county, serving in a community collaborative focused on infant, youth, and family mental health.

“There were a lot of times I had to be a voice for people who felt they didn’t have one,” Marshall said. “That’s something that I never want to stop.”

That commitment can be traced to her own mom, Stephanie Marshall, who worked as an in-home educator for Early Head Start, a federal program that provides services for low-income families of infants and toddlers, before she took on the more senior management position she holds now.

Stephanie accompanied Hayleigh and Callum to D.C., taking pride in her daughter’s role as an advocate. 

“It just goes to show the power of modeling,” she said of her daughter. “Sometimes as a parent you’re not sure if you’re doing it right, and then moments like this come along and you are thankful for those who influenced you and continue to support you, like Early Head Start.”

Hayleigh Marshall’s commitment to parents and children expanded through volunteering with Early Head Start, then working full time in a law office during her junior and senior years of high school at Alexander Early College. 

“I would do work for domestic violence restraining orders and juvenile cases, and family court, like divorce child custody cases,” Marshall said. 

The experience of engaging with people who were facing such challenging family circumstances stayed with Marshall, she said, sharpening her determination to pursue a career helping people navigate conflict and trauma. 

Marshall was excited about the possibility of moving to a big city for college (she was accepted to UCLA), but graduating from high school in 2021 presented pandemic-era challenges. She decided to enroll in an online degree program through UNC-Greensboro so she could stay at home and help support the care and education of her two younger sisters. 

Then she and her partner, Devin Waldrop, found out she was pregnant. 

“At the time, I was very much a career-focused woman,” Marshall said. “My partner and I were not planning on ever having kids.” 

But Marshall prides herself on following the path that opens in front of her, so she got a job at a child care center to learn even more about infant mental health and early childhood development — all while continuing her undergraduate courses remotely. 

By the time she gave birth, she thought she had a handle on the best practices for supporting healthy brain development of infants and toddlers, whose brains grow faster between birth and age 3 than at any other point in their lives.  

But after Callum was born, she found that her own brain needed support, too. She took a semester off so she could prioritize her postpartum mental health.

“If you’re not your best self, you can’t be the best parent you can be,” Marshall said. 

Katie Dukes, policy analyst for EdNC, records Hayleigh Marshall as she explains why she brought her son Callum to Washington, D.C., to participate in Strolling Thunder. Image via Angela Burch-Octetree.

She credits the “judgment-free” support she and Waldrop got from Early Head Start’s home-visiting program with helping them learn how to regulate their emotions and model that skill for their son as they moved through the first months of parenthood. 

Now she’s preparing to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in liberal and interdisciplinary studies, a concentration in social sciences, and a minor in human development and family studies. She’ll also be starting graduate school in the fall while Waldrop continues working full time to support their family financially.

But Marshall’s ability to continue her education depends on Callum getting a seat in an Early Head Start classroom. He’s on the waitlist until a spot is scheduled to open for him in August. 

And Callum’s situation isn’t unusual. 

According to research from ZERO TO THREE, he’s among just 6% of eligible infants and toddlers who have access to Early Head Start in North Carolina. 

Which is why he and his mom ventured beyond Taylorsville to meet with their elected officials. 

Callum goes to Congress

The trip to our nation’s capital is the farthest Marshall has ever been from Alexander County.

“Seeing it in person is just drastically different than seeing it in photos, and that’s been huge for me,” Marshall said. “I want to give [Callum] all of the experiences that are possible for him.”

For Strolling Thunder, those experiences included navigating the halls of three federal office buildings on Capitol Hill for back-to-back meetings with members of North Carolina’s congressional delegation, plus a quick stop to rally with other families on the East Lawn of the Capitol Grounds. 

Callum appeared to love every minute of it. 

At meetings with staff from the offices of Budd, Tillis, and McHenry, Callum grinned — and occasionally squirmed — from his mom’s lap as she described how much impact Early Head Start has had in her own life, and why more families like hers should have access to it.

Martha Gallagher, legislative correspondent for Rep. Patrick McHenry, hears from Callum and his mom, Hayleigh Marshall, as they advocate for increased investment in Early Head Start during Strolling Thunder. Katie Dukes/EdNC.

In a conversation with Gray Rixey, legislative assistant to Tillis, Marshall described how she, Waldrop, and Callum had each benefitted from Early Head Start’s home-visiting program. She also highlighted inclusive programs and activities hosted by Early Head Start that serve her larger community, not just families who are eligible for enrollment. 

When Marshall brought up the need for increased federal investment in the expansion of programs such as Early Head Start, Gray assured her: “You will not see [Tillis] getting in the way of this funding.” 

Gray emphasized Tillis’s efforts to address the K-12 student mental health crisis, which Marshall pointed out could be done before students enter kindergarten by investing in the expansion of programs like Early Head Start that support parent and infant mental health. 

“Home visits are a crucial part of it,” Rixey agreed. 

Callum looked up from playing with his new toy — a plush “Senator’s Briefcase” sold in the Senate’s gift shop — and squealed with delight.

Gray Rixey, legislative assistant to Sen. Thom Tillis, listens to Hayleigh Marshall as she advocates for the expansion of Early Head Start funding, with her son, Callum, in her lap. Katie Dukes/EdNC.

Marshall later reflected on Callum’s first experience with advocacy. 

“I’m very proud of him,” Marshall said. “He’s who we’re doing this for, so I think it was great that he was able to be a part of it.”

Making a fuss for babies

Families from every state and the District of Columbia had meetings like this one with their own senators and representatives as part of the annual Strolling Thunder event. 

In addition to Early Head Start, families advocated for federal investment in child care, child welfare and family well-being, infant and early childhood mental health, and economic security for children and families via an expanded child tax credit.

Helping Marshall navigate the capital and prepare for meeting lawmakers was Angela Burch-Octetree, interim director of the North Carolina Early Education Coalition. 

As the state’s Think Babies project manager, Burch-Octetree served as the liaison between Marshall and ZERO TO THREE. She brought her own family — including her husband, Charles, and her 14-month-old son, who is also named Callum — along for the day of advocacy. 

“It was important for me as a fellow North Carolinian to be able to support Hayleigh and her little one,” Burch-Octetree said. “But it was also important for me to bring my little one […] I wanted Callum to know how many people were fighting for him and all the kids just like him to have what they need to reach their full potential.” 

Between meetings, both Callums and their families joined a rally of Strolling Thunder participants, including several lawmakers, on the grounds of the Capitol.

Matthew Melmed, executive director of ZERO TO THREE, kicked off the rally.

“We are here because we know that every child deserves a strong start in life,” Melmed told the crowd. “Strolling Thunder brings families from every state in the union to be here to make a fuss for babies!”

Following his remarks were speeches by the Strolling Thunder families from Rhode Island and Texas, along with comments from several lawmakers who support programs for children and families, including Reps. Rosa DeLauro, Katherine Clark, and Jimmy Gomez — founder and chair of the Congressional Dads Caucus, best known for bringing his infant son with him when he cast his vote for Speaker of the House in 2023. 

DeLauro, D-Connecticut, spoke first:

“No child should be unable to reach their potential in this country because of insufficient resources. We have study after study that has confirmed that the first few years of life are essential for a child’s healthy development, physically, mentally, and emotionally. I have seen this with my own children, and now with my grandchildren. And that is why early education and childcare are so important. They provide places for children to learn, to grow, to play, as they become the healthiest version of themselves.” 

Clark, D-Massachusetts, expressed her appreciation for Strolling Thunder participants coming to Capitol Hill: “Thank you to every advocate here, whether you are child-sized or adult-sized, for choosing to make yourself heard, because you just aren’t speaking up for your family, you are speaking for millions of families under the weight of a broken child care system.”

Clark said she knows advocacy is hard, but “there’s nothing more powerful in the halls of Congress than the voice of a constituent with a story to tell.”

Marshall said she felt that power, and she hopes Callum did too. 

“Personally, I’m very proud of all of us,” Marshall said on the train ride back to North Carolina, with her mom beside her and Callum asleep in her lap. “I felt like we were a part of something really important, really big.”

Stephanie Marshall, Martha Gallagher of Representative Patrick McHenry’s office, Hayleigh Marshall, Callum Waldrop, Angela Burch-Octetree, Callum Octetree, and Charles Octetree stand outside of McHenry’s office on Capitol Hill. Image via Angela Burch-Octetree.

Editor’s note: The original version of this article misspelled Devin Waldrop’s name.

Katie Dukes

Katie Dukes is a policy analyst at EdNC.