Literacy Project teacher, 52, killed by vehicle while walking in Holyoke


  • Zoe Rosenthal, left, helps a Literacy Project student with her writing at the James House Community Center in Northampton in this undated photo. PHOTO COURTESY Mark Nakib

  • The Northampton chapter of the Literacy Project operates out of the James House Community Center on Gothic Street, one of the organization’s five locations in the Pioneer Valley. Mark Nakib

  • Literacy Project students remember Zoe Rosenthal as a compassionate, talented teacher. Mark Nakib

Staff Writer
Published: 12/7/2017 10:08:52 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Students and teachers with the Literacy Project are mourning the loss of beloved teacher Zoe Rosenthal, 52, of Holyoke, after she was struck and killed by a vehicle walking her dog last week.

“Her real love was building a community in the classroom,” said Sheila Murphy, site director for the Literacy Project’s Northampton chapter. “Getting people working together and getting to know each other and supporting each other, that was her goal.”

Rosenthal was hit by a 63-year-old male driver Nov. 27 at about 6:35 p.m at the intersection of Lyman and Canal streets in Holyoke. She was taken to Baystate Medical Center in Springfield and died two days later of her injuries, according to published reports.

“Zoe had this unique ability to teach to so many different needs in the classroom,” said Sara Canfield, the volunteer now filling in for her. “She believed in people and their capacities. She could separate circumstance from your abilities.”

The Literacy Project is an adult education program headquartered in Greenfield that teaches English reading, writing and math to a diverse group of students, of all ages, backgrounds and cultures. Rosenthal was one of three teachers working from the organization’s Northampton chapter at the James House Community Center on Gothic Street. She taught 25 to 30 students annually in two courses: one on adult basic education and another preparing students to earn their GED.

One student, 32-year-old Dorah Sesay-Rains, a mother of two from Sierra Leone now living in Holyoke, wrote and read aloud an essay she wrote in memory of her special teacher.

“She knows all of our strengths and weaknesses, giving us genuine praise when we deserved them,” Sesay-Rains said. “It’s hard, coming from another country and having kids, but she empowered me and she encouraged me.”

Staff and volunteers from all five branches of the Literacy Project, from Greenfield, Ware, Orange, Northampton and Amherst, gathered in Northampton last Friday to remember Rosenthal. Over 20 employees work full-time for the Literacy Project, with 40 to 60 volunteers helping out each week.

“These are adults with complicated lives and Zoe knew that helping people academically was only part of the puzzle,” said Thane Thomsen, 52, a colleague who teaches High School Equivalency, the course Rosenthal prepared her students to graduate to.

Rosenthal’s empathy perhaps came from a tragedy that struck three years ago, the day she started at the Literacy Project. Rosenthal lost her best friend and his daughter, Edward and Brittany McGrath, in a tragic motorcycle accident on Aug. 28, 2014, to a driver who was high on heroin.

“She was more than a teacher to many, many of her students,” Thomsen said. “She was a close friend, and a friend they could count on.”

Another student, Erica Archambault, 29, says Rosenthal helped her understand algebra, which she never fully grasped after switching school districts in eighth grade interrupted her education. After learning of her death last week, she kept going to class.

“I thought to myself, well, what would Zoe want me to do?” Archambault said. “And I said, well, she would want all of us to keep coming to better our education and get into college like we all want.”

Murphy remembers Rosenthal taking her students on field trips to local colleges to utilize resources such as museums, gardens, and libraries.

“She really wanted her students to feel welcome in the larger community,” Murphy said. “She wanted them to feel comfortable in that setting.”

Rosenthal leaves behind two daughters in their mid-20s, Tiffany Castillo and Chelsea Castillo, New York residents raised in Amherst, who spent their mother’s final days with her at Baystate Medical Center, and her dog, Chester, who survived the crash. Her daughters have set up a crowdfunding site to help pay for Rosenthal’s funeral costs and medical expenses.

Murphy said the Literacy Project will begin searching for a new teacher after the holiday season, and will hopefully find a replacement by the end of January.

“It’s going to be hard to fill those shoes,” Archambault said.

“I have memories of her everywhere. In my bag, in my room, everything I do is just about her because she empowered me so much,” Sesay-Rains said.

The accident remains under investigation by the Holyoke Police Department and the Motor Vehicle Homicide Unit of the Hampden district attorney’s office. The driver of the vehicle, a Holyoke resident, stayed at the scene and cooperated with police.

“Your memories will remain in me forever,” Sesay-Rains said. “I work hard to make you so proud of me. Rest in perfect peace, Zoe. I love you.”

Sarah Robertson can be reached at
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