Laurie Burpee, a second-grade teacher in Vancouver, Washington, was sitting in her home Monday night, resting before a chemotherapy appointment the next day, when she saw a light and then saw "little Santa hats" in her front yard.
"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."
Standing on Burpee's front lawn was a group of nearly 30 kids singing Christmas carols for their beloved teacher, who has been out on medical leave since October.
Burpee was diagnosed with cancer in May. Doctors thought she had breast cancer but discovered after she underwent a double mastectomy that she actually had a rare salivary gland cancer located in one of her breasts.
She underwent six rounds of radiation and just completed her third round of chemotherapy to try to beat the cancer that she said has metastasized to her lungs.
When she went on medical leave from York Elementary School earlier this year, Burpee left behind 20 second-grade students but she also left a legacy of kindness.
The elementary school has launched a kindness project in her honor, inspired by Burpee's annual tradition of organizing a day of random acts of kindness with her friends on her birthday.
A parent created a Facebook page for people to share their random acts of kindness, while York Elementary classrooms have signs where teachers and students can get ideas for and keep tally of their random acts.
"She's just this loving heart," York Elementary principal Dawn Harris said of Burpee. "She reminds us that we need to show kindness every day ... and we’re continuing to live that in our building because of her."
Harris, who also worked with Burpee at another elementary school, helped organize the Christmas carol surprise after a parent of one of Burpee's former students proposed the idea.
The students who visited Burpee's home are part of the choir at York Elementary School, where Burpee has taught for more than five years.
As Burpee walked out to her front lawn and listened to the kids sing on Monday night, she had another surprise in store. Police cars started racing down her residential street.
"I went into teacher mode, thinking, 'Oh no, something is happening and I’m going to need to put all these kids in my house,'" recalled Burpee. "I had no idea."
Police officers were not arriving to handle a disturbance in her neighborhood, as Burpee had feared, but to give her what they call a "Kindness 911 citation."
The citation read, "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. 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.”
The citation was presented to Burpee by Kindness 911, a Washington state-based nonprofit organization that partners with police to recognize kindness in the community.
Nearly five police officers and the county sheriff showed up on Burpee's lawn to present her with not just the citation but also VIP tickets to watch her beloved Seattle Mariners play baseball and tickets for a local concert venue.
"It was just overwhelming, but what a wonderful, wonderful, surprise," said Burpee. "The best part was the kids. I miss those kids so much and I miss my colleagues."
Burpee said she is most happy that the message of kindness is being shared.
"This should never be about me," Burpee said. "It should just be about kindness growing and people realizing that sharing that is powerful."
"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," she said.