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The Opportunity Maker: Bethlehem’s Self-Made Success Dr. Sylvia Medina Brings Message of Hope to Local Youth and Entrepreneurs

Raising the bar—for herself, her employees, her patients and her community.  It is all in a day’s work for Lehigh Valley optometrist Sylvia Medina, O.D.  Drawing on her own life’s journey, which includes an incredible rise from 15-year-old high school drop out to well-respected optometrist, Dr. Medina’s life has been devoted to increasing access to healthcare, education and opportunity for otherwise struggling communities.  As the founder of the Lehigh Valley’s only Spanish-English bilingual optometry practice, Dr. Medina is making quality eye care attainable for a Spanish-speaking population that travels from as far as New York City to her Bethlehem, Penn. offices for treatment.  As a self-styled mentor for the patients and employees she sees every day, she is changing lives. 

From Dr. Medina’s own earliest years, the power of community environment and mentorship to change life’s path has been striking.  Dr. Medina’s youth was marked by teenage pregnancy, dropping out of high school, and marrying by the age of 15, not an unusual life course in New York City’s public housing, where Dr. Medina came of age.  But education began opening doors for Dr. Medina when a G.E.D. earned in her early 20’s landed her a position as a clerk at Philadelphia’s St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children.  Soon, Dr. Medina’s signature inner drive took hold, propelling her from entry-level administrative position to optical technician and introducing her to a host of what would become life-long mentors and to a world of endless possibilities.    

Charting the Course for Success

By the 1980’s, Dr. Medina was the working mother of two small children with a full schedule and an ambitious plan for the future.  Dr. Medina’s work at St. Christopher’s Hospital had focused her career goals on optometry, and a college degree was the next step in achieving that goal.  So, Dr. Medina packed up her family and moved to southern Florida, where she enrolled in the University of South Florida.  Earning a college degree with a family in tow meant working full time while carrying a full course load, but Dr. Medina was undaunted.  She spent four years deftly balancing family, work and school, making time for study whenever she could—including fitting study sessions in at the top of bleachers at her growing sons’ wrestling meets, interrupted only by trips to the bottom of the bleachers to see her sons compete.

In 1993, Dr. Medina graduated from the University of South Florida with a Bachelors of Science degree, and it was off to Puerto Rico for four years of optometry school, punctuated by internships stateside.   When Dr. Medina graduated with her O.D. degree in 1997, she had earned much more than academic honors; she had earned the respect and ongoing mentorship of the optometrists with whom she worked while earning her degree.  It was those relationships that would shape her career going forward, buoying her inclination to fuse her healthcare skills and her background in the Spanish-speaking community to make a difference in the lives of others.

Bethlehem Bound: Medoptic Puts down Roots in the Lehigh Valley

Although Dr. Medina originally hails from New York, careful research and consultation with her most trusted circle of mentors led her to establish her optometry practice in the heart of the Lehigh Valley.  Dr. Medina’s research showed a thriving Spanish-speaking community in Bethlehem, Penn., without a local Spanish-English bilingual optometrist.  The city was in the heart of the northeast corridor with easy access to direct transportation routes from other Spanish-speaking enclaves in neighboring states like New York and New Jersey, making a Bethlehem office reachable for a large potential patient pool.  Bethlehem’s fit for Dr. Medina’s purpose was clear, and it only took a one visit to the Bethlehem area to scout possible office locations to seal Dr. Medina’s commitment to call Bethlehem home.  

By 2007, Dr. Medina had built a successful practice—christened Medoptic, P.C.—from her small location on 4th Street in Bethlehem.  The practice drew patients from as far away as New York City, and Dr. Medina’s patient pool was a mix of native English and Spanish speakers.  Since starting the business one year before, Dr. Medina  had built a reputation in Bethlehem and beyond as a trusted healthcare provider and willing mentor.  Dr. Medina connected easily with people of all backgrounds, and she designed her practice to serve patient groups across cultural and economic divides.  A walk-in schedule made Hispanics unfamiliar with the appointment-driven U.S. medical system more comfortable; the practice’s acceptance of all types of medical insurance, as well as cash payments made Medoptic economically accessible; and Dr. Medina’s easy manner drew patients from all walks of life.

Medoptic’s success brought Dr. Medina both professional and personal satisfaction.  Dr. Medina’s work was impacting her neighbors’ health but, more than that, it was impacting their lives.  Bringing new healthcare resources to communities that would otherwise go without was, for Dr. Medina, more than ample reward for the years she invested in earning her degree.  But, for Dr. Medina, the biggest personal reward has been in the opportunity that her practice has provided to mentor her young patients.  As Medoptic grew, Dr. Medina saw more and more young patients on the verge of being sidelined by teen pregnancy or lack of education.  Drawing on her own background for inspiration, Dr. Medina has become a role model for these “girls on the brink,” showing them that a challenged youth need not stand in the way of their dreams.  For many of these young patients, Dr. Medina’s mentorship has meant renewed self esteem, continued education, and new career paths, some including employment on Medoptic’s staff.

As Medoptic continued to thrive, the sky seemed to be the limit for the practice’s growth, until financing issues threatened to bring Dr. Medina’s momentum to a standstill.

Growing Pains: SBA to the Rescue

By 2010, Medoptic was outgrowing its small 4th street location, but expansion seemed impossible.  In the wake of the recent recession, lenders balked at financing projects for new businesses.  Dr.  Medina knew that, without a commercial loan resource, Medoptic would be unable to meet growing patient demand.  But, just when the outlook was darkest, Dr. Medina made a connection that would change everything.

In Fall 2010, Dr. Medina’s professional network put her in touch with Wise Financial Group, a Lehigh Valley loan packaging organization with SBA lending contacts.  Working with Wise Financial, Dr. Medina approached Berkshire Bank, a Berks County SBA-certified lender, and together, they secured an SBA-backed commercial loan that would allow Medoptic’s future to truly take flight.

Like many successful small business owners, Dr. Medina knew her business’ needs—a larger facility and updated equipment to treat her growing patient pool—but she didn’t know about the SBA lending programs that could allow her to afford them.  Until Dr. Medina applied for a commercial loan through an SBA certified lender, that lack of knowledge threatened to derail Medoptic’s growth indefinitely.   On the strength of Dr. Medina’s loan application, though, SBA certified Berkshire Bank set her loan application on track for a loan through SBA’s flagship lending program—the 7(a) loan program—and efficiently secured the capital that she needed to take on the future.  Within six weeks from submitting her 7(a) loan application, Dr. Medina was tapping SBA-backed loan proceeds to purchase a building to house Medoptic’s second location and outfitting it with updated equipment.

Through the loan process with Berkshire Bank, Dr. Medina learned that an SBA 7(a) loan guarantee is designed to make business loans more accessible to small business like hers.  With the guarantee in place, lenders like Berkshire Bank are assured that, if the borrower defaults, SBA will re-pay the guaranteed portion of the loan.  This assurance often gives lenders the additional confidence needed to make a loan to a small business.

Happily, Dr. Medina also learned that the process of obtaining an SBA 7(a) loan guarantee is simple: upon application with the lender for a loan, the lender makes the determination of whether to finance it conventionally, use an SBA loan guarantee to close the deal, or pass on a project. If the lender finances the loan through the SBA’s loan guarantee program, the lender will guide the borrower through the application process.

Today, Dr. Medina sees patients in two locations—her original location at 827 East Fourth Street, Bethlehem, and her new SBA-funded facility at 2037 Stefko Boulevard, Bethlehem.  Dr. Medina is using her practice’s expanded outreach to bring optometric care to all segments of society, and to offer herself up as an accessible mentor to neighbors, patients, and, now, to a new audience—America’s  financing-starved small business owners.   True to form, Dr. Medina emerged from her own commercial financing search to apply her trademark “You Can Do It, Too” message to America’s entrepreneurs.  Through the SBA 7(a) loan guarantee program, entrepreneurs across America can tap into truly accessible capital, just as Dr. Medina did.  Contacting an SBA-certified lender is the first step to finding out how.  For a list of eastern Pennsylvania SBA-certified lenders, please visit: www.sba.gov