Rhonda Williams used to cover her teeth when she laughed.
The Fort Mill resident said she took care of them as much as she could, but still there were problems. Parts of her smile were missing. Teeth were shifting and not white. Even her partials were wearing down and unattractive.
"I didn't want to talk to anybody. I was so depressed and never smiled," she said. "It's like getting all dressed up but your hair doesn't look good -- that's how I felt about my smile."
Williams, 52, needed financial help to fix her teeth, and with damages nearing $100,000, she had to look farther than Charlotte, Columbia and even Charleston to repair her broken smile. But the same Rhonda Williams showed up in nearly every family photograph this Christmas, pearly white teeth showing when she laughed with her grandchildren. After three years of searching, Williams had found hope, and then her old self again.
An Internet search led her to the Pi Foundation in Fort Washington, Pa., where Thomas Balshi, a nationally-known prosthodontist, was waiting to give a handful of people just like Williams a reason to show their teeth.
One of the six applicants chosen by the Pi Foundation last year, Williams received an all-expense paid trip to Pennsylvania for a popular dental procedure called Teeth in a Day.
"I knew there was someone out there that could help me," she recalled. "Sometimes we just have things working against us, and if we don't have the money to take care of it, we feel like there's nothing we can do."
In the first visit, decayed teeth were removed, infection was cleared, dental implants were placed and a prosthesis was designed specifically for her.
She left with bruises on her face, but she called them happy bruises. They would go away, and she'd smile permanently.
"It was a miracle to me," she said. "These people felt the same way I did."
Joanne Balshi, Pi Foundation trustee and wife of the prosthodontist, said Williams had a "very severe dental disability," and the foundation was touched by her application and letters.
"Not only did she suffer from a totally broken smile, but the decay in her mouth and the shrinking of her bone structure from missing teeth profoundly affected her overall physical well-being," she said.
Balshi said the "rampant bacteria" in Williams' mouth had even affected her digestion, and her missing and loose teeth had caused advanced aging in her appearance.
"Both of these physical issues caused Rhonda to withdraw from her naturally buoyant personality," Balshi said. "She pursued us with regular e-mails promising gratitude like we had never experienced if we selected her."
Williams makes regular trips to Pennsylvania for follow-up visits and check-ups, and has an appointment for her dental impression later this month.
"My son says I'll be 89 years old, hunched over, but I'll have a great smile," she said.
Williams will ring in the new year with temporary teeth made of hard plastic, and she plans to finish out 2008 with a permanent set. But teeth aren't all she's gained this year. She's gained a confidence she never knew she had.
"I'm not afraid to speak to anybody," she said. "I smile the way I want to smile. It's an unbelievable feeling."