Chuck Mills plays with his dog, Winston, and daughters Ryanne, 9, left, and Shawn, 13, outside his home in Sterling on Thursday. Mills is an alum of the Head Start program, and went on to become a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, pilot for Marine One, and has founded two businesses. (Maddie Meyer/The Washington Post)

Chuck Mills was the youngest of six children, raised by a single mother with no high school diploma who cleaned houses and clerked at the U.S. Postal Service to support the family. Many of Mills’s neighbors and some of his siblings dropped out of school, battled drug addiction or spent time in prison.

Mills went on to become a valedictorian of his junior high school, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, a pilot who flew Marine One for two presidents, a bond trader in New York City, and the founder and chief executive of two successful companies based in Northern Virginia.

“My life can be summed up in the words ‘wasn’t supposed to,’ ” Mills said. “I wasn’t supposed to get out of my neighborhood. Wasn’t supposed to go to Annapolis. Wasn’t supposed to work on Wall Street, and wasn’t supposed to be married for 25 years and have three great children.”

The 50-year-old Sterling resident credits a turning point that put him on the path to success: In 1966, his mother enrolled him in one of the first Head Start programs after seeing a flier at church. The announcement of a new kind of day-care center, which served lunch and took care of children all day for no charge, was a huge relief to his working mother and a jump-start on school for him.

For two years — first in St. Louis, then in Shreveport, La. — Mills said he gained a solid base in reading and numbers and a love of learning. When his family moved to Joliet, Ill., the next year, he was able to skip kindergarten and begin his new school in the first grade.

Chuck Mills sits for a portrait in his home in Sterling on Thursday. (Maddie Meyer/The Washington Post)

Mills’s story is one of many the National Head Start Association, an advocacy group representing Head Start centers across the country, is collecting as it begins a campaign to find and organize an estimated 27 million alumni of the program. The central office of Head Start, a federal program approved by Congress in 1964 to fight the lasting effects of poverty, is not directly involved in the effort.

Head Start is at a critical juncture. Centers across the country are grappling with budget cuts tied to sequestration, and President Obama’s proposal to dramatically expand government-funded preschool programs has reinvigorated debate about the program’s quality.

While lawmakers debate the research about the academic and health outcomes of Head Start, advocates say the most compelling results are the life stories of those who graduated from it.

“They are the proof that Head Start really does work, that it does what it sets out to do, which is to get people to succeed in life and to improve families and communities,” said Yasmina Vinci, executive director for the National Head Start Association.

Head Start alumni include politicians such as U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) and Angel Taveras, the mayor of Providence, R.I., who campaigned on a “From Head Start to Harvard” message. Lucille O’Neal, basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal’s mother, and Rose Rock, comedian Chris Rock’s mother, have spoken out as Head Start parents.

The National Head Start Association maintains a limited list of alumni, and it has begun collecting video and written testimonials. The group also has hired a full-time employee to track down Head Start graduates from all walks of life.

But they are difficult to find. A parallel effort by a software development company has pulled together more than 400,000 names in five years, still a small fraction of the nationwide total.

There is no national roster, no collection of yearbooks. The Head Start Association relies on people coming forward and identifying themselves as Head Start graduates.

But for many, preschool memories are fuzzy.

What Mills recalls most clearly is the brown bag lunch. It was a “full, nutritious meal that had all the food groups. There was a main course, a dessert, and juice or milk,” he said. “I was very happy every time I would see that meal.”

Eleazar Gutierrez, another graduate, said he learned his first English words in Head Start, but he mostly remembers the anxiety of leaving his parents every day.

“I cried the whole first month of Head Start,” said Gutierrez, 22, a graduate of a special Head Start program for the children of migrant farm workers near Bakersfield, Calif.

Martina Hone, a former Fairfax County School Board member, attended Head Start in Chicago during the 1960s and recalls getting in trouble for hitting a little boy in her class after he took her plastic alligator.

“I also vividly remember walking to that school with my mom and being so excited,” Hone said.

They have drawn on their Head Start experience to advocate for better early-learning opportunities for poor children. Mills has written letters to the editor and testified before a Senate committee. Gutierrez visited Head Start programs for farm workers in North Carolina this summer as part of an internship and talked to families about the risks of bringing children to the fields. And Hone has fought for more Head Start slots in Fairfax County, where there is a long waiting list.

Vinci said she hopes more alumni come forward.

“People who have gone to Yale or Harvard, they like to identify themselves,” Vinci said, adding that Head Start graduates often have life-changing stories to tell. “This is something to be more proud of.”

Interested Head Start alumni can reach the group at