Victoria Hilt, a Head Start parent from Bremerton, Wash., who attended the rally Wednesday at the Capitol. (Michael A. Chandler/The Washington Post)

Hundreds of Head Start parents and supporters rallied on the Capitol lawn Wednesday to urge Congress to “Stop the Cuts,”

The group included two dozens children from a Head Start center in Northwest Washington that sang “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” alumni who talked about how the early education program had transformed their lives and several members of Congress.

“This is not the time to cut back” on early childhood investments, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) told the crowd. “This is the time to double down.“

“This is an investment in the human capital of the future of this nation,” he added.

The shutdown could leave as many as 19,000 children without access to Head Start services, according to an estimate released by the Alexandria-based association yesterday. The shutdown follows budget cuts tied to sequestration that eliminated services for 57,000 children and their families across the country.

More than 400 parents and program directors from across the country are in town this week for a leadership conference organized by the National Head Start Association, a nonprofit that supports Head Start centers. They had plans to meet with people from the Office of Head Start and visit their members of Congress. They arrived as the government was shutting down.

The parent advocates included Victoria Hilt, 27, of Bremerton, Wash., who told the crowd Tuesday that Early Head Start had saved her life.

“I was six months pregnant and living in my car,” she said. She had fled an abusive relationship and had nowhere to go. She was referred to Early Head Start, and the staff helped her get temporary housing within 24 hours, then enrolled her in a home visiting program, which she is still participating in today.

Hilt said she has permanent housing now and has become the head of a parent-led policy council for her Head Start. She is also planning to reenroll in college and finish her degree.

Her daughter is now 2 and doing “amazing,” she said.

“By saving my life and my future, they preemptively set her up for success,” she said.