- Written by Gabriele Amersbach Gabriele Amersbach
It’s hard to imagine a life that spans a tough job as special agent enforcing safety regulations for trucks coming through the Mexican border; succeeding as a finalist in a national beauty competition; and handing out hugs and stuffed animals to strangers in the park.
Maria Frisby has never hesitated to explore her varied passions with grit, resolve — and love.
She began life in Brooklyn, New York. At age 7, Frisby moved with her mother and brothers to Middletown, Pennsylvania, a charming, low-key small town, with the dubious distinction of close proximity to the now-defunct Three Mile Island nuclear reactor.
“I always wanted to be somebody and to reach out to others,” says Frisby.
Her varied career has permitted her to do both. She enjoyed life in Middletown and took jazz, tap, and ballet lessons as a child, early skills that allowed her to shine during her years of pageant competitions.
Frisby began participating in pageants in 1997, representing Middletown in the Mrs. Pennsylvania America Pageant. At age 39, she was selected as Ms. Pennsylvania 2004, part of the United States Beauties pageant system, and won second runner-up in the national competition.
Her desire to compete despite a severe bout of acute pancreatitis is just one example of the grit that carried her through many life adventures.
“I had competed in a Ms. Pennsylvania pageant with the pain of acute pancreatitis and was eventually hospitalized — I didn’t want to let down my sponsors,” says Frisby.
During another hospitalization, she was in and out of consciousness in the ICU and relied on her faith and her prayer circle to survive. Nurses considered her a “walking miracle,” says Frisby.
“You don’t often get up the same night, healed after sepsis and a temperature of 108 degrees.”
Recognizing her grit and faith despite adversity, her fellow pageant director and staff voted her an “Inspiration” award, an accolade she took to heart.
‘Sometimes you have to be tough’
The same determination that carried her through a potentially life-threatening illness had served her well when she completed a B.S. degree in criminal justice at Penn State University and moved to Arizona in 1990.
There she worked with the Arizona Department of Public Safety (the state police) and assisted other law enforcement agencies to screen incoming truck drivers from Mexico and enforce hazardous-material and motor-carrier safety regulations.
“I had to interrogate people and do investigations,” says Frisby. “I even did strike forces with the California Highway Patrol and Sacramento State Police Department. Sometimes you have to be tough.”
In 1994, Frisby moved back to Middletown and started working with children from a local community.
“For kids from at-risk families without good role models, it’s easy to get into bad things,” she says.
Frisby wanted the children to develop empathy for the homeless, the disabled, and the elderly and learn to love everyone. Together they practiced gospel songs.
As the Angels of Mercy, the child chorus and Frisby went to hospitals, nursing homes, and homeless centers, where they sang and gave out stuffed animals and inspirational cards.
‘People need to hear they are loved’
For the last 20 years, she has continued her efforts to spread cheer and goodwill with stuffed animals, roses, cards, and hugs.
“It is really important to provide comfort and tell people they are loved, they are cared for, and they are accepted — no matter what race, age, nationality, or skin color,” Frisby explains.
She and a group of “Angels” continue their mission in local nursing homes, although Frisby often spreads her message of love by herself, when she passes through a park, a parking lot, or even a restaurant.
“In the time we’re living in now, there is so much division,” she says. “People need to hear they are loved, by me and by God — a hug often makes people’s day.”
The recent quarantines and social distancing were especially hard for Frisby.
“COVID broke my heart,” she says. “It slowed me down dramatically.”
Now Frisby is thrilled be able to hug again.
“I am motivated by God to do the things Christ would do — to spread love.”
‘We thought we would die that night’: Publicizing the impact of TMI
Her commitment to her local community is also present in her support of efforts to publicize the devastating impact of the Three Mile Island partial meltdown on March 28, 1979.
“My family and I are survivors of the United States’ worst commercial nuclear accident,” she explains. “We lived within the 2- to 3-mile radius that was most affected. Thousands of families left the area, but my family and I could not leave the area due to car problems. We thought that we would die that night.”
As a result of the radioactive releases to prevent a total core meltdown, Frisby and her family all experienced the “strong metallic taste that people in Chernobyl and Fukushima had,” she says.
Researchers do acknowledge that after the accident, residents near the Middletown plant began to report nausea, vomiting, hair loss, and skin rashes — signs of radiation exposure.
Frisby notes that while researchers initially refuted claims of increased cancer risk, as more time passes, some researchers have documented the increased risk of some cancers in communities close to the nuclear reactor.
While controversies over the amount of radiation released — and its ongoing impact on health — continue, Maria Frisby joins many local people who provide stark anecdotal evidence that their families definitely saw a rise in cancer.
“Many people in my brother’s and my high school classes died of cancer — including thyroid, colon, lung, leukemia, lymphoma, and breast cancers,” says Frisby. “I know so many people, including myself, with a host of health problems.”
Many of Frisby’s own family have developed, and in some cases, succumbed to a wide range of cancers, while others have developed long-term thyroid disorders.
Frisby notes that Mary Stamos, another TMI survivor, documented another TMI impact: the many mutated plants and animals she found in the area around TMI in the ’80s, including plants with abnormally huge leaves, roses with flowers growing in the middle of the stem, and daddy long leg spiders with four legs rather than eight.
There was even a two-headed calf born on a farm in New Cumberland. The documentation of the nuclear accident-related oddities is now found at the Smithsonian Institute.
As a TMI activist, Frisby is part of the East Coast publicity team for two TV programs based on the 1979 nuclear accident: Plutonium Skies (a five-part dramatic TV series) and Powerhouse (a five-part docu-drama series). Both series are written, produced, and directed by Jill Murphy Long of JML Films.
Frisby shares her story of survival at film-launch parties and takes photographs and videos of other survivors and local businesses that were around during the nuclear incident. She was also interviewed for an upcoming TV documentary about the TMI partial meltdown: Radioactive: The Women of Three Mile Island.
In addition, Frisby has set up a Facebook group for people who were impacted by TMI called, “Surviving Another Day: The Three Mile Island Citizens Survivor Group.”
Maria Frisby and her family still live in Middletown, despite its dark history. On a sunny afternoon or even when it’s overcast, you may find her walking through a local park or restaurant to reach out with love to the sick, the disabled, the homeless, and anyone who is willing to smile back.
She’ll tell you that all of our divisions and differences don’t matter. You are loved.
On the cover:
From left, Maria Frisby participating in a Harrisburg-area parade as Ms. Pennsylvania 2004; Frisby distributing gifts as part of her Angels of Mercy initiative.
The unit 2 of Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station closed since the accident in 1979. Credit: “Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station Unit 2” by Z22, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.