About two years into his cancer diagnosis, Vern Koop and his wife, Agnes, met with a team of doctors to determine whether he should undergo surgery to replace his aortic valve, which was causing fluid to back up in his lungs and making it difficult for him to breathe. It was just one of many health issues he’d encountered since his diagnosis, and there were questions about how to move forward given the state of his health. Vern says he had just one request for the doctors that day — that he make it another two years, so he could see the Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project come to Canada in 2017.

“I started with a Carter build and I wanted to end my career with a Carter build,” says Vern, who attended this year’s Carter Work Project as Habitat Manitoba’s Director of Construction, overseeing all 25 homes that were built in Winnipeg as part of the project. Although his health stopped him from being as involved in the project as he would have liked, he did get the chance to build with the Carters one last time.

Vern began working with Habitat Manitoba in the early ‘90s as a volunteer, and served as the site supervisor when President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, first brought the Carter Work Project to Winnipeg in 1993. Since then, he’s been part of countless Habitat home builds, including Carter Work Projects in North Dakota, Georgia, and Hungary. More than 20 years later, he’s as committed to the cause as ever.

“I really believe in Habitat — it’s just the idea of giving a hand up to the people who really need it,” says Vern, who’s slowly handing over his responsibilities to officially retire in the fall.

It’s a bitter-sweet ending to a rewarding career — at 75, he says he’d continue working for Habitat full-time if it weren’t for his health, which is why he plans to continue lending his skills as a casual volunteer. Getting the chance to witness thousands of people, from all walks of life, come together to take part in Canada’s biggest build project ever has made that transition a little easier for him, especially because it was so successful.

“We had out-of-towners who said it was the best organized build they’ve been on, and I would agree with them,” he says. But the crew didn’t just get the houses to the stage they were hoping — everyone had a great time doing it.

“I don’t know of anybody who had a bad experience that week,” he says, which was one of the biggest highlights, and something that will stick with him. “Knowing the project was successful and everyone went home feeling good gives me tremendous satisfaction.”