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December 12, 2011

Wheaton College Launches Humanitarian Disaster Institute

This fall, Wheaton College launched the Humanitarian Disaster Institute (HDI), an interdisciplinary academic research center for the Christian disaster and humanitarian service community worldwide.

The Humanitarian Disaster Institute is the first faith-based academic disaster research center in the country, and one of the few disaster or humanitarian centers in the Midwest.

Wheaton College psychology professors Dr. Jamie Aten and Dr. David Boan direct HDI, which includes College faculty from the departments of intercultural studies, economics, politics and international relations, theology, and urban studies, in addition to psychology faculty. These faculty fellows serve as the core researchers on the Institute’s major projects, which also involve undergraduate and graduate students.

In addition to its research goals, HDI will develop current and future humanitarian disaster volunteers, practitioners, and scholars. It provides technical assistance to partners including churches, faith-based relief organizations, humanitarian organizations, research centers, and state and federal agencies.

Aten’s areas of expertise include the integration of psychological science and theology, with an emphasis on disaster-related mental health and trauma. He became interested in founding a research center related to humanitarian issues during his research related to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Hurricane Gustav in 2008, and the Mississippi Delta tornadoes and the Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill, both in 2010.

“The vision for this institute started as I saw how underserved and vulnerable populations were having difficulty accessing mental health services after Katrina,” Aten says. “From there, I started gaining a lot of interest in the role the church plays, and particularly how churches were meeting some real needs in the greater community that weren’t being met elsewhere. Churches seemed to have unique callings, resources, and infrastructures that equipped them to work with disasters.”

Aten joined the Wheaton College faculty as the Dr. Arthur P. Rech and Mrs. Jean May Rech Associate Professor of Psychology last year.

Boan began consulting on the Humanitarian Disaster Institute in 2010 and joined the faculty of Wheaton College this year. His current work focuses on such topics as knowledge transfer, community and organizational capacity building, community resilience and faith-based organizations, and public health and disasters. Boan’s work in public health led him to study the relationship between health and disasters in Chengdu, China, following the 2008 earthquake.

Current research projects of the institute include studying the responses of Haitian clergy to mental health and spiritual needs following last year’s earthquake; collecting data on the impact of childhood trauma on faith; exploring ways to reduce gender-based violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo through partnerships with churches and non-governmental organizations; and examining the ability of faith-based organizations to respond to humanitarian disasters.

More information about the Humanitarian Disaster Institute is available at wheaton.edu/HDI.