Law school friendships often start at orientation. For Ken Kajihiro, L’22, one such friendship stands out in particular, starting when his seatmate at a career development luncheon told “this super awesome story” about an education-based nonprofit he ran in Africa. Kajihiro’s response? “Who is this guy?!” 

“This guy” was Chase Whittaker, a fellow 1L student hailing from San Diego. After a 2017 trip to Livingstone, Zambia as an undergraduate student majoring in public policy at San Diego State University, Whittaker returned to the states knowing that his work in Zambia wasn’t done. Struck by the needs of the students in terms of access to a quality education – and the needs of the teachers in providing that education – Whittaker got to work. After researching internal revenue code, talking to pro bono attorneys, seeking funding, garnering support from faculty at San Diego State, and partnering with teachers and leaders in Zambia, the Sandstone Initiative was born – and granted 501(c)3 status. 

Chase Whittaker with children from Zambia.

The core educational challenge in Zambia, Whittaker explained, is a set of relatively new government regulations that require teacher certification on a regular basis – which can pose an expensive roadblock. “We saw kids that were trying to go to school but didn’t have money, we saw teachers that wanted to stay in the classrooms but couldn’t without overcharging the students,” explained Whittaker. “And so we wanted to find ways to help schools and particularly teachers find alternative means to tuition to generate revenue to stay in compliance and stay open.”

In addition to school improvements and revenue generation projects, the creation of a social services campus is high on the radar for Sandstone. Conceived of with the goal to combine a school, an orphanage, and a senior living facility, “we wanted to bring everyone together in one massive complex,” said Whittaker, and give all residents “the support they need from the ground up, in an enriching and vibrant compound.” A local tribe has provided the land, and plans are underway in partnership with residents of Livingstone. “Our whole approach … is we need the community to be invested,” said Whittaker. “We, as a general rule, will not do anything that’s not in some way proposed by the community itself.” 

For that same reason, it’s important to Whittaker that a Zambian provides leadership on-the-ground in Livingstone. Sepiso Mbindo, the head teacher of Musale Kings Trust School, serves this role – and her “Helping Hens” initiative is an example of the projects that Sandstone works to support. Funds from the nonprofit helped subsidize the purchase of an egg incubator. Young chicks from the incubator were sold at a local market; that revenue, in turn, was put back into the school to help pay teachers, improve the grounds, and create a safer environment for children. 

It was work like this that Kajihiro wanted to be involved in. Kajihiro spent five years in the Marines before coming to Richmond Law. After serving as one of the first responders to the Fukushima tsunami, earthquake, and nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, and later in combat operations, Kajihiro knew one thing: “I wanted to continue to help other people.” 

Kajihiro enrolled in law school with an interest in government and public policy. For Whittaker, it was international human rights that drew him to the field. For both, thought, it was about increasing their ability to make an impact. As Whittaker put it, “law school’s great and all, but I believe that it’s really important to spend time impacting lives and leaving a mark whenever you have the chance to do it.” 

With his own eye on making a difference, Kajihiro booked his ticket to Zambia two days before their final December 2019 exam. Four days later, he landed in the country for a three-week trip to help complete renovations on two schools. Partnering with local Zambian builders, the team painted, cleaned, and prepped their way to opening day. “Because of Ken’s hard work and dedication, the buildings were successfully converted in time for the school to open for the January 2020 term,” said Whittaker. And on January 13, students reported to class for the first time. 

Ken Kajihiro outside of one of the new schools.

 

Throughout his experience in Zambia, Kajihiro had a specific use for any limited free time: prepping for a mock trial competition with the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association. That’s the key challenge for students like Kajihiro and Whittaker, who’re trying to find a balance between preparing for the future and making a difference now. For Kajihiro, it’s not a question of if, but how: “There is time to sacrifice,” he said. Because when it comes to charting a life course centered on helping others, “I don’t want to be walking the line,” said Kajihiro. “I want to be a little zig-zag.” 

Pictured top, left: Chase Whittaker with children from Zambia. (Photo courtesy of Chase Whittaker.) Pictured bottom, center: Ken Kajihiro outside of one of the two schools completed this year. (Photo courtesy of Ken Kajihiro.)