The braces in Caitlin Gulley’s mouth strain against her crooked teeth, negotiating them into place. Some teens hate the sore gums, the shiny smiles and the repetitive orthodontist visits.
But Caitlin wears her braces proudly, less like metal and more like a medal. After all, she’s earned them.
Caitlin, a 15-year-old Fletcher High sophomore, was chosen to be the first First Coast recipient of free braces through the Smile for a Lifetime Foundation, a national organization that provides free orthodontic care to children in low-income households who do volunteer work. The Jacksonville chapter of Smile for a Lifetime launched last year through Beaches Orthodontics.
Dr. Shreena Patel of Beaches Orthodontics said she started the chapter to give back to her hometown. She donates her time and the braces are donated by California-based orthodontics company Ormco.
“There are a lot of kids that can’t afford treatment. I think it affects them psychologically to a degree. There are a lot of kids who are afraid to smile,” Patel said. “I don’t want anything to hold them back.”
Caitlin, who got her braces put on a month ago, spends her evenings absorbed in books, but she’s hoping to break into television news when she gets a job.
“When you’re on camera, it’s going to be zoomed in on your face,” she said. “You want want them to be like, “Oh, there’s that journalist with the crooked teeth.’”
Her dad, Michael, said he hoped to give her orthodontic care, but he didn’t have any way to afford it.
His middle-class salary of about $45,000 was enough for him, his girlfriend and their 1-year-old daughter, but Gulley has also been raising Caitlin and her brother full-time since their mother died.
Bills, food and educational supplies are always taken care of, but some of the extras had to hit the back burner, braces included. A set of braces can cost anywhere between $3,500 to $5,000.
“For me, it was more than just a physical transformation. It was about feeling good about what I was,” said Michael Gulley, an Atlantic Beach resident and a regional director for the Boys & Girls club. “I think it will do the same with her and her self-confidence.”
He said he feels grateful that Patel took Caitlin as a patient.
“Whether people know it or not, that’s the first thing people see about a person. You notice their appearance,” he said. “A lot of times, you don’t find people who are willing to give kids these opportunities.”
Before she got braces, Caitlin smiled with her mouth shut.
“I felt like people would make fun of my crooked teeth,” she said.
Even after a month of treatment, she smiles widely, showing off her pearly whites.
“We see it all the time. Kids come in and they’re shy, they don’t want to smile, they don’t want to show their teeth,” Patel said. “ The day she got her braces was literally the first day I saw her teeth, and I asked her to smile and she smiled, teeth and braces and all.”
For more information:
To get more information on Smiles for a Lifetime, visit slf.memberclicks.net. To apply for the program, visit Beaches Orthodontics page at patelbeachesorthodontics.com.
Meredith Rutland: (904) 359-4161