Womens History

Viola Davis inspires students in her hometown of Central Falls, Rhode Island

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — From her moving performance in “The Help,” to her Oscar-winning role in “How to Get Away with Murder,” Viola Davis has climbed to the top of the list of Hollywood heavyweights. But before she ever walked the red carpet, she walked the halls of Central Falls High School.

Inside the high school today, her sister, Dr. Deloris Grant, teaches theater to students who hope to follow in Viola’s footsteps.

“My sister Viola has given so much of her time, money, any type of opportunity she's been able to expose the children to,” Grant said. “She has gone out of her way, above and beyond, to bring resources to the children of Central Falls.”

Davis's success and regular contributions to her hometown inspired the city to name the street adjacent to the high school after her three years ago. In 2012, Davis returned to the city for a fundraiser and explained how giving back is her life’s purpose.

“When I was growing up in Central Falls, I would have wanted someone to come back and throw me a rope, as I'm throwing others the rope, now that I'm walking through the door,” Davis said. In a packed assembly that same year, Davis offered some advice to the students of her alma mater.

“I know the road ahead of you,” Davis said. “I know all the obstacles that are placed in your path living in Central Falls.”

Central Falls Superintendent Victor Capellan reminisced on the day the Hollywood star came back to visit her hometown.

“She came in and spoke to our senior class and afterwards we had time for the students to connect and meet with her and every single one of those interactions was genuine,” Capellan recalled. “They wanted to take pictures, talk with her, interact with her, and she did it in such an original way, where every student and every person that had an opportunity to connect with her, was able to have their moment with Viola.”

Dr. Grant said growing up in poverty often caused them to look for an escape and in their case, it was through acting. Central Falls' poverty rate currently stands at more than 30 percent.

“I love that we were given the opportunity to be on stage,” Dr. Grant said. “Whether it was in the high school or in Jenks Park, we always had those opportunities given to us, and we were able to escape those moments of poverty.”

After both benefiting from a federally funded Upward Bound College Access program as children, Davis and Dr. Grant founded the Upward Bound Scholarship as a way to give others the same opportunities they had.

To this day, Davis is constantly checking in on the students at the high school, especially those in the Thespian Society that Dr. Grant started. According to Dr. Grant, Davis quietly pays for field trips for the students and often gives feedback on students’ work.

“I remember when Viola was nominated for her first Academy Award, I had a student come to me and say, ‘Mrs. Grant’ and she started crying, and she said ‘Mrs. Grant, if that happened to your sister, that could happen for me.’”

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