Viola Davis Opens Up About Her Extreme Poverty as a Child in Moving Speech: “I Have Stolen, Jumped in Garbage Bins With Maggots For Food”

Viola Davis
Viola Davis gave an emotional speech about her poverty as a child at Variety's Power in Women event on Oct. 10.  Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for Variety

How to combat hunger. She may be an Oscar-nominated actress with a hit TV show, but Viola Davis comes from incredibly bleak beginnings. In a moving speech at Variety's Power of Women event on Friday, Oct. 10 in Los Angeles, the How to Get Away With Murder star, 49, opened up about her struggles with poverty early in life. 

"Although my childhood was filled with many happy memories, it was also spent in abject poverty," she explained to the audience in tears. "I was one of the 17 million kids in this country who didn't know where the next meal was coming from, and I did everything to get food. I have stolen for food. I have jumped in huge garbage bins with maggots for food. I have befriended people in the neighborhood, who I knew had mothers who cooked three meals a day for food, and I sacrificed a childhood for food and grew up in immense shame."

It was her painful past that led Davis to get involved with the Hunger Is campaign, which is dedicated to raising awareness and funds to help hungry children and their families in the United States. 

Viola Davis and Jennifer Lopez

"I didn't decide to join the Hunger Is campaign to save the world. I didn't. I set out to save myself," Davis said in her emotional speech. "It has been the joy of my life to be able to start this campaign and know that that little girl with the ponytail [referring to herself as a child] and all the children like her — 17 million, 21 million families in this country that have to be in food assistance programs — that all of that can be eradicated. They can go about their business of being who they are and not sit in front of an SAT like I did, falling asleep because I was hungry. And not befriending people just because they know their mother makes banana bread after school. And jumping in trash bins. No one's childhood should be spent like that."

Davis was just one of the big names who spoke at the event, which also included Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Lopez. The New York native, 45, also shared stories of her humble beginnings, revealing that she shared a bed in the Bronx with her two sisters as a kid. Through the Lopez Family Foundation, the "Booty" singer hopes to help less fortunate mothers receive the resources they need to take care of their families. 

"There were those who didn't have the access, the resources or the education to get the right care for themselves and their children," she said. "I've been a mother for six years and there isn't a single moment of the day that doesn't go by where I don't worry and every mom knows this feeling."

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