Staff Sergeant Michelia Rivera-Acosta, our fifth and final Five Under 35 honoree of 2021, is using her life experience to bridge the gap between the Malmstrom Air Force Base community and Great Falls, all while making people from all backgrounds feel welcome.
The 29-year-old is a munitions maintenance scheduler at Malmstrom. The road to her now decade-long career in the Air Force wasn’t always obvious or easy.
“I was homeless for a couple months, I battled that for about six months and then my paternal grandfather took me in,” said Rivera-Acosta. Little did she know, her grandfather had a plan. He told her, “'The way you’re going to pay me is by doing 18 push-ups, 38 sit-ups, and running a 16:20 mile', and I’m like, 'OK, sure,' and I did that. Little did I know, he actually talked to an Air Force recruiter prior to me coming and he said he saw the potential in me and he made sure that I was going to make it to the Air Force. So that’s how I joined the military. He was the first person who saw potential in me when I didn’t see it in myself, so every day I wear this uniform I think of him.”
After stops in North Carolina and around the world, she landed outside her comfort zone in Great Falls. She recalled thinking to herself, “Michy, give this community a chance, don’t preemptively judge this place, give this community a chance. I remember driving downtown, scoping the place. I just felt overwhelmed. I parked my car, I look up and I see the monument of Alma Smith Jacobs. There’s so much Black history here. So that led my curiosity to see more things." (Jacobs was the head librarian in Great Falls and eventually became the Montana State Librarian in 1973.)
She’s used that experience as motivation to discover more diverse history in Great Falls. Now she’s working with civic leaders to recognize and honor more people and cultures. “I want this community to feel the same pride, that sense of relief I felt when I saw Alma Smith Jacobs,” Rivera-Acosta said.
She is also using her experiences as a teen to help others now. She created an organization called “Toeses & Noses” to support homeless shelters. “Toeses & Noses is private organization that I created to help the local community and homeless shelters by collecting winter clothing for underprivileged families. I started the organization in 2015. I typically leave boxes around Malmstrom a month prior before the winter holidays I collect the final donations to the Rescue Mission here in Great Falls,” explained Rivera-Acosta.
She explained, “I think that’s my way of paying it forward. In the three years that I’ve been here, I’ve collected 956 articles of clothing and dropped it off at the Rescue Mission downtown.”
Through all of her efforts, she’s working to show off Great Falls’ strengths and build a more resilient community for all who come here. “It’s been a blessing, I can honestly say that I’ve never put my hands inside a community and put myself in a community,” Rivera-Acosta explained.
Rivera-Acosta has a few projects in the works right now. She’s working with city officials to hopefully develop a “Key To The City” program to honor people who make Great Falls great. She’s leading an effort this month to honor Negro Baseball Hall of Famer Eddie Reed with a mural. She also hopes to get "Juneteenth" proclamated in Great Falls, and honor pilot Hazel Ying Lee in Lion’s Park.