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News / Health / Clark County Health

York Elementary teacher battles cancer with acts of kindness

By Wyatt Stayner, Columbian staff writer
Published: January 10, 2020, 6:00am
6 Photos
Laurie Burpee, left, jokes with her son, Alec Burpee, while talking about some of the acts that led to a Kindness 911 citation she received in December.
Laurie Burpee, left, jokes with her son, Alec Burpee, while talking about some of the acts that led to a Kindness 911 citation she received in December. (Nathan Howard/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Things took an ominous turn when the police cars rolled up.

Laurie Burpee, a teacher of almost 40 years, had about 30 of her students from York Elementary School singing Christmas carols to her in her front yard in early December. The group, which also included some students’ parents, surprised Burpee, who was resting at home before chemotherapy treatment the next day.

Then, during the caroling, a group of law enforcement vehicles came down her street. Burpee was worried at first. Then the cars stopped in front of her Vancouver home.

“The police cars came down the street,” Burpee recalled. “I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh. What’s happening? We have to get these kids in the house. They’ll never fit.’ I went into teacher mode.”

In a holiday twist, the law enforcement presence was there to reward Burpee, not punish her. She was presented with a Kindness 911 citation from the local nonprofit Kindness 911. For the last five years, Burpee, 60, has organized a day of random acts of kindness to celebrate her birthday. The citation and gathering were a way of recognizing and celebrating her kindness.

“She’s done things big and small,” said her 24-year-old son, Alec Burpee.

Burpee started her random acts of kindness for her 55th birthday, with about a dozen other participants. In its latest iteration, about 40 helped out. She said they’ve left dollar bills in library books, paid for people’s meals at restaurants and left flowers on cars outside emergency rooms.

“She wants to help people,” her son said. “Kindness is her way of showing you she cares.”

The caroling surprise went viral and grabbed national headlines. Burpee has been featured in People magazine and on “Good Morning America.” She hasn’t been able to teach since October because of cancer treatment, so the positivity has been welcome for her. She’s happy students are seeing that their kindness has garnered national attention.

“Just the idea that you can do a tiny thing and it feels good to everybody, doesn’t cost anything, doesn’t take any great effort,” Burpee said, “it’s been huge for the kids to see that.”

In May, Burpee was diagnosed with cancer. Doctors initially thought she had breast cancer, because there was cancer present in her breast. She underwent a double mastectomy, but the cancer was still around. It turned out Burpee has Adenoid-cystic carcinoma, and it was a salivary gland cancer that was in her breast. The cancer has since spread to her lungs.

She’s undergone rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, and still has more treatment to go.

“That’s one of the hardest things, to not know what’s happening next,” she said. “I’m, by nature, a planner and organizer.”

Burpee said she misses her relationship with students the most.

“I’ve taught for 38 years,” Burpee said. “To not be there every day is difficult, but I know I have to take care of this health thing first.”

When Burpee left her second-grade students in the fall, she had to explain what was happening to her body, and how it’s a tough time for her currently. Her kids compared the hard times to when a caterpillar becomes a chrysalis. But that only lasts for a while, before a butterfly or moth emerges.

“This is a metamorphosis I’m going through,” Burpee said. “It’s been a great help to me to be able to think of it that way,” she continued. “I guess there’s a reason I teach second grade. I think like they do.”

Columbian staff writer