Laurie Burpee was diagnosed with cancer in May but has been on medical leave since October

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Students Surprise Teacher
Credit: Evergreen Public Schools

A community in Washington recently rallied together to surprise one of their beloved teachers ahead of the holidays as she continues to receive cancer treatment.

After she noticed a light and a bunch of Santa hats outside, Laurie Burpee did not expect to find nearly 30 students from the Vancouver, Washington school where she teaches on her front lawn Monday night.

“I thought, ‘There are kids out there,’ and then I thought, ‘There are a lot of kids out there,'” Burpee told Good Morning America. “When I went to the door and saw they were kids from school, the tears started to flow.”

The York Elementary School choir students — in addition to their principal, the county sheriff, and several police officers — all had come together to honor Burpee for the kindness she shows others each and every day.

“It was just overwhelming, but what a wonderful, wonderful, surprise,” Burpee told GMA.

Doctors initially told the second-grade teacher she had breast cancer in May, but after undergoing a double mastectomy, Burpee learned that she had a rare salivary gland cancer inside one of her breasts. The cancer has since metastasized to her lungs, GMA reports.

Students Surprise Teacher
Laurie Burpee
| Credit: Evergreen Public Schools

Burpee, who began a medical leave from her job in October, has already undergone six rounds of radiation and recently completed her third round of chemotherapy, GMA reported.

Though she was out of sight at the school, Burpee certainly wasn’t out of mind. In her absence, the elementary school launched a kindness project for Burpee, which was inspired by her annual wish of asking for random acts of kindness on her birthday.

The project includes signs that are hung inside the school’s classrooms, giving teachers and students the opportunity to share and provide inspiration for the acts, as well as a Facebook page where other community members can share their good deeds.

Of course, the Christmas carols were part of the plan, suggested by one of Burpee’s former students — but the project also extended well beyond members of the school community.

Police officers who turned up to the teacher’s home on Monday night teamed up with Kindness 911 — a local, nonprofit organization started by one of the community’s middle school teachers that partners with police to recognize kindness in their community — and presented Burpee with a “kindness 911” citation.

Students Surprise Teacher
Laurie Burpee (left) with principal Dawn Harris and the Sheriff
| Credit: Evergreen Public Schools

“You are the embodiment of kindness and have a positive impact on every person you know … and many you don’t know. Thank you for being an example of kindness, compassion and goodwill,” the citation read, according to GMA. “Even when faced with overwhelming circumstances you are a light. Thank you for your commitment to your students and your York Elementary family. May this night remind you that you are never alone and we look forward to walking with you through your metamorphosis where you will most definitely be a beautiful butterfly.”

York Elementary principal Dawn Harris told NBC affiliate KGW that she wanted to reach out to the nonprofit so that they could “give back to [Burpee] what she has given us.”

“Laurie has always been a person who shows kindness to all,” Harris told PEOPLE of Burpee, who she has known for 17 years. “My heart swelled with love for all that showed up to help have a day of love and kindness versus thinking about being tired and sick. This is what we do and now we even do it better.”

But the citation wasn’t the only thing that Burpee received from Clark County Sheriff’s Office authorities. They also presented the beloved educator with VIP tickets to watch her favorite team, the Seattle Mariners, play baseball, plus tickets to a concert.

“I can’t even tell you how much this means,” Burpee explained to KGW. “I’m home and I miss it so much, and I miss the kids. This means everything to me, it’s just amazing.”

“The best part was the kids. I miss those kids so much and I miss my colleagues,” she told GMA.

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Even though Burpee was grateful to be honored, she went on to emphasize why being kind “should never be about me,” but rather helping others in need and making a difference.

“It should just be about kindness growing and people realizing that sharing that is powerful,” she told GMA. “To build that culture and that climate around just noticing the tiny, little things you do make a huge difference and to know the importance of kindness and how you can just incorporate that easily into your day, it’s just phenomenal.”

“Take care of each other,” she added to KGW. “You can teach content, but it’s the connections with people that really matter.”