By: GEEARS for Saporta Report
On Tuesday, February 7th, Grey Kovacs marched down a hallway of the Coverdell Legislative Office Building at the Georgia Capitol. She had a long journey past quiet, glass-fronted offices to reach the workplace of her representative, Stacey Evans of House District 57, where she would deliver a letter advocating for paid family leave.
Along the way, Grey paused, tossed her blond ponytail, and belted out a series of shrieks, accompanied by some very wet raspberries.
Grey, it should be noted, is 22 months old.
And her very age-appropriate behavior was forgiven because this advocacy outing was all about her—and the 630,000-plus other children under five who live in Georgia. The day was called Strolling Thunder and, this was the sixth year in a row that GEEARS: Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students orchestrated this opportunity for families of young children to speak to their legislators with their babies on board.
At Strolling Thunder, families visited the Gold Dome to meet legislators in their offices, at “the ropes” outside their chambers, and during a fun-filled lunch at Central Presbyterian Church. Throughout the day, kids paused to build with giant Lego bricks and clamor for baby dolls made by a balloon artist. Also on hand were representatives from some of GEEARS’ partner organizations, Fathers Incorporated, Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies, Helping Mamas, and Quality Care for Children.
All of this involved a tremendous amount of preparation.
The week prior to the day at the Capitol, GEEARS hosted virtual advocacy trainings to empower families to share their stories and express their needs to policymakers. They also encouraged attendees to write letters to deliver in person on the 7th.
Then, very early on Strolling Thunder Day, the GEEARS staff lugged toys, photo booth equipment, sparkly headbands, and enough juice boxes for a tiny, diaper-clad army to our home base in the church’s social hall.
One might have asked—especially when the cacophony of over 40 young families reverberated through the room—why not use those resources for child care so legislators could have quiet conversations with their constituents?
“I’m Latino, I’m Hispanic and I see some Hispanic families here,” observed Representative Reynaldo Martinez (HD-111). “I look forward to talking to their kids and I’m going to hear what they have to say.” Which is to say, when families share stories about the unattainable cost of child care or the need to eliminate the state sales tax on diapers, the presence of children who may need comfort or corralling sends a powerful message: In order for families to work, thrive, and contribute to Georgia’s economy, they need to feel supported by Georgia’s leaders.
Stories from parents and their children at 2023 Strolling Thunder definitely inspired that support.
In the legislative chambers, Representative Katie Dempsey (HD-13) and Senator Kay Kirkpatrick (SD-32) issued resolutions declaring Strolling Thunder Day.
“I want to remind y’all how important those early years are, birth to five, when the brain develops so fast . . . and the responsibility that we have to carry that forward to families across our state,” Representative Dempsey said before leading a standing ovation for GEEARS and the Strolling Thunder families.
Soon afterward, Senator Sonya Halpern (SD-39) spent several minutes speaking individually with Strolling Thunder participants. LaToya Martin asked for help after being denied critical aid for her two sons, ages five and 14, both of whom have muscular dystrophy.
Debbie Bynum, who attended with her three-year-old grandson Cobe, told the Senator that parents need “truly affordable child care, not just ‘affordable’ child care, which isn’t really affordable.”
And Grey’s mother, Anna Kovacs, spoke about the need for every parent and caregiver to have access to paid family leave.
For Ni’Aisha Banks, Strolling Thunder was such an important mission that she drove up from Savannah with two of her four children to speak with her legislators.
“I really wanted my kids to be part of this advocacy,” she said while waiting to fill her toddlers’ lunch plates at Central Presbyterian. “That’s something I do already in my community, but to have my kids come and be a part of it was actually important to me. I wanted them to get a chance to meet their legislators and just to tell them what they want.”
The lawmakers at the luncheon were clearly captivated by the families and their stories. Senator Bo Hatchett (SD-50) bonded with a constituent by sharing photos of his own young children and Representative David Huddleston (HD-72) knelt on the floor to learn about snakes from a passionate little boy. Representative Becky Evans (HD-83) said she was leaving with new knowledge that would inform her work this session.
“I learned that there are some barriers to finding good child care and that has affected employment for young mothers,” she reported. “I definitely support increasing CAPS funding, so I’ll be advocating for that among my fellow legislators. And getting rid of the diaper tax. That’ll be my main takeaway from today.”
The young children who attended 2023 Strolling Thunder might find their memories of the day fading soon after their balloon sculptures shrivel. But for the grown-ups—the parents and caregivers who lifted their voices and the lawmakers who will take the images of these families into their work—the impact could be long-lasting and profound.
Which is why GEEARS is already committed to shlepping toys and juice boxes to 2024 Strolling Thunder next year. Once again, we can show our leaders, firsthand, how strong families lead to vibrant communities and a prosperous state.