Before getting braces, Shaniqua Segar Underwood never really smiled. If something was funny, she would cover her mouth to laugh so no one could see her crooked teeth.
"My teeth were like really, really horrible," Underwood said.
But thanks to a national nonprofit foundation and a local orthodontist, Underwood is on her way to finally being able to smile.
Beaufort orthodontist Dr. Skeet Burris of Winning Orthodontic Smiles volunteers his time and money to give local children the smile they always wanted.
Burris' son Ben, also an orthodontist, began the Smile for a Lifetime Foundation in Arkansas a few years ago, and the elder Burris joined the effort in 2009. Smile for a Lifetime awards scholarships for braces to needy children. To be eligible for a scholarship through the local chapter, children must be 18 years old or younger, still in school and living at home, financially needy, and living in Beaufort, Hampton or Jasper counties.
Gail Burris, Skeet's wife and volunteer facilitator of the local Smile chapter, said her husband has awarded 22 scholarships so far. She said he has offered to donate six scholarships a year.
"It's a way to give back to the community, to needy children, to help their appearance, their self-esteem," she said. "We know there are people who can't afford braces but really need them."
Underwood, 21, applied for the scholarship in May 2010. The former Beaufort resident who now lives in St. Augustine, Fla., got her braces in September of that year. The braces are still on, but she said she can already tell a big difference in her teeth. She's hoping to get them taken off Feb. 18.
She said she feels better about her appearance now.
"I was so used to not smiling," she said. "My cousin said one day, 'Your teeth are straight now. You can show them.' ... I'm so used to covering my mouth. I haven't even gotten used to smiling."
Lady's Island resident Caroline Gant, 20, said she wasn't insecure about her teeth, but she did need braces.
Gant said she was one of the first local children to receive a scholarship through the foundation. She had her braces put on in 2009 and taken off a year later.
Gant said Skeet has a tradition after his young patients get their braces removed. He breaks out his banjo and sings a celebratory song to the tune of "Skip to My Lou."
"He gives you a little bag of popcorn afterward," she said. "It's a nice touch."
Skeet said braces cost roughly between $5,000 and $6,000. He said you have to have orthodontic insurance in your dental plan for it to cover braces. Even then, insurance usually only covers $1,000 to $2,000 of the braces.
Skeet said he wants to raise the level of self-esteem of everyone who enters his office. He said that's why they call it a scholarship for braces -- because they want the children to feel like they have won something. He said all the kids who qualify know they are struggling financially, and he doesn't want them to feel like they're just getting another handout.
"Now they don't go out and say, 'I'm so poor I got free braces,'" he said. "They say, 'I won a scholarship.' ... It's a life-changing event to be able to see a child or now a teenager blossom once we give them that beautiful smile."