Work of Dagen and wife in Honduras is remarkable

Published 10:26 am Wednesday, June 12, 2024

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By Bonnie Bartel Latino

Special to the Advance

The president of the Escambia County High School class of 1964, forever-friend, Patricia Crook Threadgill, recently made Atmore Advance Columnist Bonnie Bartel Latino aware of the extraordinary work, which Wilmer Dagen and his wife, Dr. Miriam Dagen, have lived and breathed for decades, primarily in Honduras.

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Wilmer, who mostly grew up in Poarch, was recently in Atmore for his 60th high school reunion. 

Latino interviewed him by phone in Atmore and by email and text messages after he returned to their mountain homestead of some 500 acres, which they maintain. The acreage includes part of a Honduran national park at the top of a mountain behind to Dagen’s place.

They also have a few cows they milk for themselves and to make cheese. Pigs, chickens, ducks, horses, and a single donkey wander the grounds, which are loaded with fruit trees that grow bananas, plantains, and papayas, Latino wrote.

They also grow pineapples and also some vegetables. Also, the Honduran government doesn’t have enough money to fund every district postal system. Once a month when Wilmer is expecting funds from the United States, the nearest post office calls to inform him. Wilmer jumps in his car and drives 30 minutes down the mountain to pick up his U.S. mail.

When Wilmer Dagen, now a youthful 78 year old, was a child living with his two brothers, two sisters, and their parents, Paul and Lois Dagen, in Pennsylvania Dutch country, their father was recruited as a Mennonite minister to help “plant” a small community church in Poarch.

In June of 1958, the Dagen family moved South, out in the country near Atmore.     

As a seventh grader in 1958 in Atmore’s public school on Pensacola Avenue, Wilmer had two Mennonite classmates, Mary Ann Glick and Stanley Shirk. After they graduated in 1964, Wilmer traveled to Harrisonburg, Virginia, to study two years at Eastern Mennonite College (now University). When he had completed those years, he was eligible for the draft. However, the U.S. Military Draft Board granted Wilmer Dagen Conscious Objector Status with the option to sign up for two years of work at overseas hospitals. He traveled to Honduras, where he served as a single volunteer, Mennonite service worker.

By the summer of 1970, he was back in Alabama working as a counselor at Camp Victory in Florala, working as one of 50-plus Mennonite staff and campers. That summer he met Marian, a young woman from Maryland, who was a staff lifeguard. Wilmer and Miriam married in Florala in 1972, a week before they left for Honduras where they worked as Mission Associates in rural development and health. In time, Miriam earned her BS in Nursing, including skills that were helpful as a mid-wife in towns and villages with no hospital. In 1978 Wilmer took a job as a Southeast Area Representative for World Neighbors. Because his job description made traveling 75 percent of the time in Indonesia and throughout the Philippines mandatory, the couple made their base in Cebu City, Philippines, where Miriam studied medicine.

When Dr. Miriam Dagen graduated in 1982, they returned “home” to Honduras. While she continued her work in health and medicine, Wilmer continued to encourage indigenous people, migrants, and people of various cultures, who are different from theirs, to reach out and help build strong relationships, or bridges, with each other. He further taught that the variety of bridges – among all types of diverse people – can make lives richer and more meaningful. Another area of service for Wilmer was/is to work in social areas of agriculture, teaching farmers to improve their products and productivity. He also assists with the sometimes-confusing process of getting a land title, thus helping would be landowners make that dream come true.

The Dagens also have focused on education. They personally have made dreams come true for children who longed for higher education but seemingly had zero opportunity for college. They are now hosts to the second generation of students in their home as they offering adult supervision to the children of former students to whom the Dagens had previously helped in St. Stebens where they live. For decades, Wilmer Dagen has raised countless funds for scholarships for older students, whose potential and drive to go to college far exceed their funds. They have occasionally bought musical instruments and helped talented students follow their passion to music school. These days Miriam doesn’t work full-time as a doctor. They live 90 miles from the nearest clinic. However, she does sometimes consult on difficult cases when a doctor in a clinic needs a second opinion.

The Dagan family walks the walk, which they stress to others, particularly the importance of building relationships and exchanging ideas, culture, and beliefs with those from other countries or ethnic groups. In such exchanges, they always stress the crucial role of education. Some of the Dagens’ grandchildren are half-Navajo. For the past two years, one of the teenage boys lived and studied at Ft. Wingate Bureau of Indian Education Boarding School in McKinley County, New Mexico.  Surely a sensitive and heartfelt movie, perhaps a documentary, could share with the world the story of a young American-Mennonite, half-Navajo teenager, who intentionally lived among and learned the Navajo Nation’s history and culture as well as about his Mennonite family’s decades of service in their second homeland, Honduras, where he will spend his remaining years of high school.

During its recent reunion, the Class of 1964 was so impressed when it was Wilmer’s turn to share his life story, his classmates unanimously voted to donate to the Dagen’s educational ministry. Anyone who wishes to contact the Dagen family may contact Bonnie Latino at 251-229-0343.