By Elizabeth Wahl, WI-AIMH Endorsement Specialist
Tuesday May 2, 2017 was a thrilling day on Capitol Hill, a most memorable day indeed. If you had asked me a year ago, while I was nearly 9 months pregnant, if I thought I would be strolling the halls of Congress with my infant son to meet one-on-one with our elected officials – including the office of House Speaker, Paul Ryan – to raise awareness about the importance of the first three years, and to ask Congress to keep our infants and toddlers in mind when making policy decisions, I never would have dreamed it was a possibility. But, thanks to Zero to Three’s Strolling Thunder, Think Babies campaign, one family from each state was given this remarkable opportunity to represent their state, meet with elected officials and share their stories and experiences of parenting infants and toddlers. It was amazing to join the other families across our nation in this effort, humbling to be part of this first-ever event, and I am filled with gratitude for this opportunity that WI-AIMH entrusted to us.
Strolling Thunder was about speaking up on behalf of babies and families and raising awareness of the critical importance of the first three years, and early relationships. Each family had a unique story to tell about what infants and toddlers need to ensure their healthy development and lifelong success. Topics included: flexible family leave options, high quality affordable childcare, supports to nurture healthy development, access to home visiting programs and early intervention services, health coverage for infants and young children, raising awareness about Infant Mental Health, and much more. Bringing attention to these issues facing everyday families was so much bigger than any single piece of legislation and engaged the political spectrum across both sides of the aisle.
By all accounts, the day was a tremendous success. Zero to Three did an outstanding job organizing the event and the meetings with legislators, paying careful attention to every detail needed to support infants, toddlers and their families’ journey to Washington D.C. leading up to the event, and on that day.
Zero to Three brought all 50 families together for a meet-and-greet the day before the event. Families had a chance to get to know one another, share stories and offer words of encouragement before the legislative meetings. Additionally, Zero to Three staff and other experts from Capitol Hill spent time prepping families for what to expect going into the meetings, how to navigate “the Hill,” including security lines, elevator access, room numbering, etc. Most importantly, Zero to Three staff emphasized how much they wanted the babies to be seen and heard exactly for who they are – and assured the families that dirty diapers, a few tears, soggy Cheerios, drools and wet kisses were all welcome as part of the process.
The Strolling Thunder event began the next morning. Each family was paired with a Zero to Three staff liaison who accompanied us to the legislative offices. You could feel the excitement and energy in the air as all the families took to the Hill on that beautiful, breezy morning with their babies in strollers, decked out with signs and flags captioned “Think Babies,” “Strolling Thunder,” and “The Future Begins with Babies.” It was clear to us that it was unusual and special for so many babies to be on Capitol Hill, and we were literally giving elevator speeches as we headed to our meetings!
Once we arrived in our respective legislator’s offices, the Zero to Three liaison kicked off the meetings by overviewing the neuroscience behind early development and the Strolling Thunder, Think Babies campaign and explaining how one family from each state came to meet with their elected officials, before turning the meeting over to the families.
Having our babies in the meetings with us provided a powerful opportunity for legislators and staff to witness brain development and early relationships in action, right in the moment. As I shared our story with Senator Ron Johnson’s office, Senator Tammy Baldwin’s office, and House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office, legislators and staff watched my 11- month – old son reach for me for hugs and cuddles when he needed comforting, witnessed when he interacted with his books, saw how he naturally waved “hi” and smiled at friendly faces, heard him call out for “Dada,” who was not in the room – and yes, they watched him feed me soggy Cheerios, which I happily accepted from him. This was the perfect entre for me to talk about how babies develop through nurturing and responsive relationships, and that my son Lincoln’s social and emotional development is foundational to all his other learning, including early literacy and problem-solving skills, so that someday, he might be a future law-maker on the Hill! We discussed how our family has been fortunate to find high quality, affordable child care in our community, but how that is not always the case for many other families. We also talked about how it’s important to keep in mind families who are living in situations of toxic stress, and to think about ways we can ensure all families are best able to optimize their babies’ brain development, and to imagine how there can be missed opportunities for infants and toddlers in situations where toxic stress is part of their everyday experience.
I was able to discuss the Wisconsin Alliance for Infant Mental Health and the agency’s mission. I talked about the field of Infant Mental Health and the ways in which WI-AIMH supports those who work on behalf of infants, toddlers, and their families including professionals whose work spans the continuum of care, from the promotion of early relationships and social emotional development, to prevention, intervention, and treatment. I highlighted a number of programs and services in Wisconsin that serve and are valued by so many families, including: home visiting programs, early intervention, and early care and education programs administered by the Department of Health Services and Department of Children and Families. I discussed how WI-AIMH works collaboratively with the Office of Childrens’ Mental Health. WI-AIMH publications were shared, including our state’s Infant Toddler Policy priorities, as well as additional materials intended to promote awareness regarding the importance of attending to social emotional development in infants and toddlers. In addition, I was able to discuss workforce development topics and the importance of valuing and investing in the early childhood workforce. I shared how Wisconsin is fortunate to have the UW Infant, Early Childhood, and Family Mental Health Capstone Certificate Program for professionals in our state.
Each legislative staff member was attentive and took notes during our story and messages. They were engaged and asked questions throughout the meeting, which allowed for further discussion and elaboration on various topics. Some of their questions included: “how does a family find high quality affordable child care?” and “Are there implications for a developing baby’s mental health prior to birth?” We were given about 20-30 minutes in each of the three meetings, and in all cases we were made to feel like a priority and not rushed to wrap-up the discussions. I believe Lincoln made an impact by being in the room with me, and I know he left behind more than just soggy Cheerios – his presence helped emphasize that babies are important and what happens to them in the first three years of life
Following the legislative meetings, the families from all 50 states were joined by hundreds of local families, Zero to Three’s Executive Director Matthew Melmed, and other elected officials, both Republicans and Democrats, for rousing speeches in support of the first three years. This was followed by a several-block stroll down Capitol Hill, complete with balloons, signs, strollers, the media, a
police escort, and lots of interested by-passers. The day was capped off with a celebratory reception that evening at the Russell Senate Building where babies and families gathered to share in the success of the day, and we were even joined by law-makers and a few celebrities too. It was an unforgettable experience that I will cherish, and I look forward to someday sharing with Lincoln his role in this amazing event.
I anticipate this will be an annual event, and next year another Wisconsin family will have this wonderful opportunity. I remain hopeful that Congress will prioritize the unique needs of infants and toddlers now and in the future.