Have you heard the one about the highly successful personal injury attorney who started a contest to keep kids from killing themselves in car crashes?

No joke. It’s happening right here.

Artwork by Gracie Kavanah, Maranacook Community High School, 2014.

“We have lots of work to keep our attorneys and staff busy,” Joe Bornstein said amid the quiet of the teen room at the Portland Public Library. “We don’t need more work.”

Surrounding him as he spoke were dozens of framed art pieces, all created by Maine high school seniors and all with a singular message: If you think you can drive drunk or distracted and get away with it, think again.

Most Mainers know Bornstein for the TV ads that over the decades have made him perhaps the best-known attorney in Maine. The late actor and pitchman Robert Vaughn portrays the Portland-born barrister, now 71, as precisely the kind of hard-knuckle, no-nonsense lawyer you need should trouble – and with it, the right to compensation – come your way.

Far less known is the “Arrive Alive Creative Contest” founded by Bornstein 13 years ago to get kids thinking about the consequences – while there’s still time – of getting behind the wheel while drunk. Or, these days, with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on a cellphone.


Since the contest’s inception in 2004, more than 750 seniors from 115 high schools throughout Maine have entered paintings, drawings, videos, essays, poems, songs, even a line of T-shirts, in the competition – a treasure trove of peer-to-peer messaging that has been tucked away with each passing school year.

Now, through a Facebook page, a soon-to-be-upgraded website and a traveling art exhibit, Bornstein and Nate Bergeron, the law firm’s marketing director, are shifting the project into a higher gear.

The art show debuted this month at the Portland Public Library and will remain there until Thanksgiving before traveling to malls, libraries and schools all over Maine.

This 2013 “Arrive Alive Creative Contest” entry by Sydney Tanguay, then of Windham High School, depicts a school graduation with a seat containing a car key sitting in spilled beer.

“You see kids going from piece to piece and really looking at them,” said Portland teen librarian Kelley Blue, who greets between 80 and 100 high school kids on any given weekday afternoon. “They go around in pairs and talk about the pieces. They’ve been really impressed with the artwork … and we do hear kids talking about distracted driving as well.”

One painting, in dreary black and white, shows a high school graduation with an unoccupied seat in the foreground. In the graduate’s place: a car key sitting in a pool of spilled beer, next to the words “It’s only the beginning.”

Another shows Superman, a beer still in his hand, lying unconscious in the road near a wrecked car. “No one is invincible under the influence,” it warns.


Then there’s the girl, a cellphone in one hand and a cup of beer in the other, careening into an open grave.

In putting together the show, Bornstein collected 50 of the winning paintings and sketches from years past and headed for a local art shop. He figured he’d cull out the best half-dozen or so and have them professionally framed.

Only then, flipping from one to another, did he fully appreciate the power of the kids’ creativity.

“I couldn’t eliminate any of them,” he said. “I really got quite emotional as I was looking at it and I thought, ‘Look at the work they’ve done. Look at the effort they’ve put in.’ So, I framed all of them.”

His willingness to put his money where his heart is extends much further.

Each year, five first-place winners receive a new, high-end laptop, while five second-place and 10 third-place finishers get new Apple iPads.


All told, Bornstein’s law firm has shelled out more than $120,000 for the prizes, which are distributed among the various media used by the contestants – from a captivating rap song to a chilling, full-scale video production that used real police, real rescue workers and, most important, real kids to reenact an actual crash that had rocked that community a year earlier.

Lucinda Stein, who teaches senior English at Gorham High School, is all about the printed word.

One of a growing number of teachers who have incorporated the contest into their curricula, she spent Wednesday working with her seniors on their essays.

Some, Stein said, will be research-based. Others will be deeply personal: No fewer than three of her students already have said they want to write about a member of the Gorham High School football team who died in a crash when they were freshmen.

Stein figures 30 or so students will submit their writings this year, many spurred on by the fact that a Gorham student won a laptop last year and three others placed third.

But beyond the prizes, a vastly bigger benefit beckons.


While cultivating their own ideas this week, Stein said, her students spent much of the class on Facebook perusing past entries. When this year’s winners are announced in June, they’ll do the same thing.

That’s not just a healthy competitive spirit. That’s a sizable number of 17- and 18-year-olds, all over Maine, digesting timely message after timely message from other kids about staying safe, about making sure they’re still around to fill that chair come graduation day.

“Just the fact that the kids are reading this, it’s subliminally getting to them,” Stein noted. “And I think that’s a win that’s well beyond the computer. That’s what makes it worth it.”

Bergeron, Bornstein’s marketing director, still shudders when he remembers a classmate from his own high school years in the late 1990s who liked to boast, “I’m the best drunk driver in this entire school.”

These days, even as cellphones surpass alcohol as the primary threat to teens behind the wheel, Stein knows the feeling.

“I had a student, a sophomore, who got her license,” she recalled. “And she said, ‘You know what, Ms. Stein? I am so good at texting and driving. I’m so safe!’ ”


Meaning, as another class of seniors hurtles toward graduation next spring, there’s still work to be done.

Stein found herself bemused this week when her students, upon learning that their entries would be judged by a panel at Bornstein’s firm, started making all those “very stereotypical” comments we all make about lawyers.

“Wait a minute,” she interjected. “Don’t lawyers get married? Wouldn’t they have kids? And might they possibly be invested in helping out teenagers and making sure teenagers stay safe?”

The kids quickly caught on: Lawyers, for all the jokes and other abuse we like to heap upon them, are people too.

Just ask Joe Bornstein.

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