Photo courtesy of Brandon Garrett
Mont Garrett, center, prepares to release balloons of hope at the fundraiser organized by his children to help him fight cancer.

TAYLORSVILLE — Mont Garrett is known for his compassion when delivering bad news, whether hugging a mother who has just lost a child in a car accident or holding hands with shaken family members after he’s gently told them about a loved one’s suicide.

So when he recently received some bad news of his own, it seemed fitting that hundreds of people — including dozens of strangers — would rally to help the bighearted volunteer chaplain for the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office.

Garrett, 62, wouldn’t have dreamed of asking for help in his fight against a rare and aggressive form of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. After the medical bills from cancer treatments depleted his savings and Garrett seemed ready to give up the fight, his five children decided last month to hold a fundraiser for their dad, who has dedicated his life to “walking the extra mile” for anyone in need.

“He’s always been the first one to volunteer, the first one to jump in and help,” says daughter Tawnya Derrick, 38, who grew up watching her dad mow neighbors’ lawns, shovel snow, move furniture and change flat tires. “Because he’s always been a server, it’s been tough for him to be the recipient of giving.”

With help from the Utah-based charity, “Anything for a Friend,” thousands of dollars were raised to help Garrett and his wife, Jan, pay some of his medical bills. But the self-employed homebuilder is still in a fight for his life. Doctors have given him six to 12 months to live unless he can be put on experimental medication to slow the rate of his Stage 5 cancer.

“It’s a last resort — my last hope,” says Garrett, “but I’m at peace with whatever happens. I’m giving it my best shot, but a guy can’t live forever.”

Hoping to share his father’s story of courage and selflessness, Garrett’s son, Brandon, recently invited me to join the family for a Free Lunch of veggie pizza and fruit salad at the Taylorsville home built by Mont 34 years ago when he moved his young family from Burley, Idaho, to start a new life that didn’t involve rising before dawn to milk cows.

“I was accident prone — I had my arm cut off by some farm machinery when I was younger,” he recalls. “When the doctor sewed it back on, he told me, ‘If there’s ever a chance you can find a better job someday, take it.’ So I did.”

Grateful for an opportunity to start over, Garrett applied the lessons he’d learned helping neighbors in Burley to his life in Utah, signing on as a chaplain for the sheriff’s office to help strangers deal with tragedies.

With a soft knock on the door and a request to come inside, he has delivered the worst of news to hundreds of Salt Lake County families.

“It’s hardest when you have to give bad news involving children,” he says. “That’s something you never get used to. When I first started doing this, I thought it would always be a downer, but the truth is that the job can also be rewarding. You run into people who remember when you came to the house and helped them during a difficult time and they’ll just want to say ‘thanks.’ That always warms the heart.”

Now that Garrett is the one saying “thank you,” “it’s been an eye-opener,” he says, brushing away tears. “At the fundraiser, I looked out on a room full of people wanting to help, some of them complete strangers. One man came to the house and handed me a check for $500. I have no idea who he was.”

One doesn’t have to look far to find good people, says Garrett, who is still fulfilling his chaplain duties even though he’s been weakened by chemotherapy treatments.

“You don’t have to look any further than your own backyard,” he says. “It’s very touching. And it’s taught me another thing, too: Even with bad news, you can’t give up hope.”

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Cathy Free has written her "Free Lunch" column since 1999, believing that everyone has a story worth telling. A longtime Western correspondent for People Magazine, she has also worked as a contributing editor for Reader's Digest.