While many students feel pressured simply juggling grades and partying, one student at the University of Rhode Island has balanced his course load with advocating full-time for young sexual assault victims.

Student Matthew Finkler, 26, has been involved in social work since he began working at a shelter for homeless youth in Anchorage, Alaska at the age of 19. Today, he majors in English and creative writing at URI, while also working full time assisting youth who are homeless, struggling with mental health, or victims of sexual assault.

Finkler found his way to his current position at St. Mary’s Home for Children in North Providence, Rhode Island, after a summer internship with Day One RI, a nonprofit with advocates for victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking.

“They are one of the only agencies in the state that provides services specifically for victims of sexual assault, and they also educate the public,” Finkler said. “They work with the police department, they are at the state house, they have group counseling, they have legal aid, a sexual assault response team and law enforcement advocates. What I do for Day One is that I’m an advocate. I do ‘go-out’ calls for the hospital and the police department. When someone goes to a hospital and reports any kind of sexual violence, sex trafficking, [then] they are offered an advocate. If they say ‘yes,’ they call Blackstone Advocacy center, who calls Day One advocates, that’s me.”

Finkler considers himself a kind of “first responder.” He said that it’s mostly about meeting with a victim, talking them through the initial processes, making them feel comfortable and then seeing if they need to be referred elsewhere for follow-up treatment.

“I get a call, I meet with the person [and see] if they want I will talk to the police for them,” Finkler said. “I advocate for them; I help them through the legal process, I help them through the process of the rape kit, help them fill out an application for crime victim compensation for any damages. Also of course, it varies from situation to situation, some people want less help and some people want you to hold their hand through the whole process, and some people want you to just be there with them to talk to them.”

The position at Day One RI is not Finkler’s first job dealing with youth advocacy and young victims of sexual assault. In fact, he initially became active in social work because of his own experiences as a young person.

“I left home very early at 17, I couch surfed for a while, was kind of a homeless teen for a while, and eventually got help at [a shelter] called Covenant House of Alaska,” Finkler said. “And I eventually started working there, and just started walking around and helping kids, talking to them and being a friendly face. [I] became a caseworker there when I turned 21, then I became a case manager. After leaving for a short while and coming back, I actually ran the program that I had initially gotten help from.”

It’s for that reason that Finkler has continued the same kind of work here in Rhode Island, even as a student. “I ended up coming to Rhode Island and only recently started working with Day One because I was really passionate about working with, and helping, victims of sex trafficking and sex crimes,” he said.

Today, in his current role at St. Mary’s Home for Children, Finkler is a family liaison. He acts as a mental health and family relations case manager, mostly for children and teens who were victims of trauma. In this position, Finkler is focused on restructuring inpatient treatment for both these patients and their families.

“In residential treatment, historically, children would be pulled out of the home and placed into a therapeutic environment but historically have been cut off from family [during treatment], and then they go back to the family,” Finkler said. “If the goal is for the child to go back, why would we treat the child and not the family? The goal is to keep the family and natural and healthy support systems involved in their lives.”

Because of this experience, most of Finkler’s work at St. Mary’s is centered on advocating to the state on behalf of the child and the family, in order to change their treatment plan. In addition to this full-time work, Finkler still volunteers with Day One RI.

“I’m not a very religious person… but I feel very called to this work, and I feel very fulfilled in this work,” Finkler said. “I’ve been through a lot in my own life. I saw a lot growing up and I can relate to a lot of the experiences of the people I work with. I really think it came to me; life brought me to the place where I was working with people in crisis or in need. And I happened to be motivated to do it, and I would like to think that I’m good at it. But I will continue to do this and advocate for a human’s life and decency, and hopefully I will do that for the rest of my life.”