When Mary-Margaret Almonte turned 50, she told friends that instead of presents she wanted pharmacy gift cards that she could give patients she had met while being treated for cancer at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Unlike Ms. Almonte, an award-winning teacher who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2009, the gift card recipients couldn’t afford medications to stave off nausea and other side effects of their treatment, or their insurance plans didn’t cover them.
“She saw so many people struggling, people who had to choose between groceries and medications,” said her sister Cathy Reichow of Genoa, Ohio. “She’d walked in their shoes with cancer, and she wanted to help.”
With support from MGH social workers, Ms. Almonte launched Healing Hope, a charity that has raised about $10,000 in the form of pharmacy gift cards.
Ms. Almonte, who taught English as a second language and who had lived in Malden and other communities north of Boston, was 53 when she died May 12 in Kaplan Family Hospice House in Danvers.
Healing Hope is “an extremely successful charity, especially when you consider that Mary-Margaret ran it from her bed,” said her friend Teri Chace of Little Falls, N.Y., who added that weeks before Ms. Almonte died, she helped a recent immigrant with a resume.
“Right to the end she was finding spare time to help people who needed her,” she said.
An artist whom friends described as an adventurous free spirit, Ms. Almonte began teaching English as a second language at Showa Boston Institute for Languages and Culture, a satellite campus of Showa Women’s University in Japan. That experience led her to work in the Malden school system, where a large variety of languages are spoken in students’ homes. She was a classroom teacher before being promoted to curriculum specialist, which included visiting classrooms of students of all ages and coaching teachers.
“There’s always the question of whether teaching is an art or a science,” said her colleague Paul Teixeira, director of English language learners for the Malden schools. “For Mary-Margaret it was both. She studied the theories and she knew it all, but the art part was apparent in the connections she made with students and colleagues, and the way she helped them connect with each other.”
Ms. Almonte’s interests in teaching people to speak, read, and write English extended beyond the classroom. Agape Atibu of Haverhill was 20 when she emigrated from Congo in 2005. She planned to find a job that didn’t require her to speak or understand English, and then she met Ms. Almonte through Freedom Hill Community Church in Malden.
“Mary-Margaret just opened her house up to us, to all of us,” Atibu said of herself, her parents, and her siblings.
Ms. Almonte hired Atibu to baby-sit her son Elisha, 11, and encouraged her to go to school.
“I said, ‘No, Mary-Margaret, I can’t speak English so I think it’s just better for me to work,’ ” Atibu recalled. But Ms. Almonte pressed her to aim higher and began teaching her English. She guided Atibu through an associate’s degree at a community college and a bachelor’s at Salem State University.
“I never gave her a penny, and she just did everything for me. Whenever I did something, she would be there, pushing me to go farther than I thought that I could,” said Atibu, who added that Ms. Almonte “was an angel on earth who went too soon. She inspired me so much.”
Mary-Margaret Batanian was born in Toledo, Ohio, the third child of Floyd Batanian and the former Mary Lou Nist. She received a bachelor’s degree in art from Bowling Green State University before moving to California.
She was “an artist at heart, always drawing, and just went out there to see what she could do,” her sister said.
In the mid-1980s, Ms. Almonte moved to Rockport to reconnect with friends. She began working as a nanny for Jamie Fisher, whose father was a widowed lobsterman.
Ms. Almonte, whose two marriages ended in divorce, helped raise Jamie. Although she never formally adopted him, Ms. Almonte and Jamie, who now lives in Newton, considered themselves mother and son, her sister said.
In 2008, Ms. Almonte graduated from what is now Salem State University with a master’s in teaching English as a second language, and she began working at Beebe School in Malden.
She was awarded a Linda Schulman Innovation Grant in 2011 for creating “Children Reading the World,” a project that encouraged students’ photography, literacy, and sense of community. The following year the Massachusetts Association of Teachers of Speakers of Other Languages named Ms. Almonte the English Language Learner Teacher of the Year, citing her creative writing and community service projects.
After her diagnosis, she kept working through several rounds of chemotherapy and two clinical trials. She remained active at church, wrote a blog on the Healing Hope website, and was a devoted single mother to Elisha.
When he was 9, she began planning for his life if she were to die. She arranged visits to Gig Harbor, Wash., where her brother Tim lives with his wife and children, and enrolled Elisha in summer camp there.
Two weeks before Ms. Almonte died, her sister Cathy said, relatives brought Elisha to the home of his uncle, aunt, and cousins, and he is now settled there. “She had the foresight to plan what was best for him,” Cathy said. “It was so hard for her to let him leave. You could see that it broke her heart, but she knew it was the best thing for him.”
In a 2012 blog post, Ms. Almonte described Elisha’s life in her brother’s community. “Elisha plays hard every day,” she wrote, noting that he loved “the freedom to roam in the safety of his cousin’s care, bike riding, and adventures in the adjacent woodlands.”
A service has been held for Ms. Almonte, who in addition to her son, parents, sister, brother, and Jamie Fisher leaves three other brothers, Jeff of Morenci, Mich., Matthew of Gualala, Calif., and Jonathan of Sylvania, Ohio; and another sister, Suzanne of Sicily.
Ms. Almonte had keen green eyes, friends said, and had a flair for accessorizing, particularly with colorful scarves she wore during chemotherapy.
“She was probably the most earnest person I ever met,” Teixeira said. “She never took anything at face value. She always dug deeper. If she didn’t understand something, she would ask all the right questions until she understood it.”
Ms. Almonte was “an excellent teacher,” he added, and she “embodied kindness and determination, exuded confidence and enthusiasm, and she imparted all of that to all her students.”Kathleen McKenna can be reached at email@example.com.
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, Teri Chace’s first name was incorrect.