Educator Sarah Norton gave up her vacation to spend time with her student Charlie Fernandez, but she insists, "I would never give back what I got from her that summer"

When Charlie Fernandez first arrived at Saddlewood Elementary in Albany, New York, in the fall of 2019, she had already been diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a rare and aggressive cancer, and she struggled to keep up with her peers. Still, the 6-year-old "ruled the school," according to her teacher.

"She was a Sassy McSassypants and wanted to do everything everyone else did," Sarah Norton, 54, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue, which celebrates educators amid Teacher Appreciation Week. "Everybody loved her."

Charlie, recalls her dad, Jason Fernandez, "loved going to school" — especially to Mrs. Norton's special education classroom, where she could cuddle with Norton's two dogs, George and Henry, who were in class every day. Often tired from her medications by the afternoon, Charlie would curl up on the pups' bed that sat next to her desk rather than the special cot Norton had for her.

"She would take a nap and George and Henry would lay on each side of her," Fernandez says. "They surrounded her and gave her comfort."

Charlie was only in class a few months when she relapsed. With Charlie unable to return to class for weeks on end, Norton would place a stuffed monkey in her chair to hold her place. And then, early last year, a double blow: her family learned that she was losing her sight as a result of her illness, and just a few months later, the school shut down due to COVID-19.

sarah norton and charlie fernandez
Charlie Fernandez and Sarah Norton
| Credit: Courtesy Fernandez Family

With Charlie too sick to join her online class, as soon as it was safe to visit, Norton wore a mask, packed up George and Henry and made a house call.

Because of the pandemic, "Charlie was getting zero services for her blindness," says Norton, who fashioned a cane out of a hula hoop, bought a harness for George and "turned him into a fake seeing eye dog."

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Together they encouraged Charlie to take walks: "She was weak from her treatments and afraid to go outside, but she would hold on to George and the hoop and we'd walk a few steps down the street," recalls Norton.

charlie fernandez
Charlie Fernandez
| Credit: Courtesy Fernandez Family

Throughout the summer, Norton kept up her visits, bringing braille blocks and games and sandpaper letters for Charlie to trace.

"I never gave up because she never gave up," Norton says.

She gave up her vacation to spend time with her student, but she insists, "I would never give back what I got from her that summer."

Mrs. Norton "went above and beyond," Fernandez says. "She made our lives so much easier. She was like another aunt or mom — they were that close. But it's not just my kid. Mrs. Norton treats every kid in her class the same. They love her."

sarah norton
Sarah Norton with dogs
| Credit: Courtesy sarah norton

When in-person school started up again in the fall, Charlie begged her parents to let her head to class. Although they were nervous, they agreed. Norton prepared the room — and her students — for Charlie's return, buying special air filters and setting up plexiglass partitions around their desks, which Norton decorated to look like Jeeps.

"Charlie wanted normal, so that was our job — me and my amazing team — to give her that normal," says Norton.

She told her students how Charlie's blindness would affect her, and them, "and they rose to the challenge, they tucked their chairs in, they held the door open for her, they would give her tactile things to touch," she says. "They would read books to her and explain the pictures."

When Charlie, whose favorite color was pink, wanted a pink crayon to draw with, "all of us would be running around looking for dark pink. Not one kid would say, 'But you can't see it, Charlie.'"

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Each day when the bus arrived at school, George would meet her and walk with her, and when Charlie grew too weak to walk, Norton would carry her to class.

In December, Charlie relapsed once again. Despite radiation and chemotherapy, Charlie's condition worsened, and on April 19, she died of her illness at the age of 7.

When Norton went to the funeral home for visitation, George was by her side. Charlie may have been her student, Norton says, but the lessons she shared were invaluable: "Anyone who met her won't forget her. With the strength she showed, she taught us how to love deeper and how to be better people. She was a gift."