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Big Brothers Big Sisters in big business

With mac-and-cheese on the menu, there was a fair amount of jostling in the lunch line yesterday at Bentley Systems Inc., of Exton.

With mac-and-cheese on the menu, there was a fair amount of jostling in the lunch line yesterday at Bentley Systems Inc., of Exton.

Quick eaters could find a pickup football game in the computer-software company's front lot. And in its auditorium, straws, paper clips, and hard candy were available to anyone who wanted to take a crack at the "puff-car" competition.

All of which more than met Xander Leatherwood's expectations.

"I didn't think it would be this much fun," he allowed as he knocked back a chocolate milk with company cofounder and chief executive officer Greg Bentley.

"Xander is an expert in the history of video games," Bentley offered.

He is also 10 years old.

Xander, a fifth grader at Collegium Charter School in Exton, and Bentley, who has an M.B.A. from Penn's Wharton School, are part of a vanguard of innovation within one of the nation's most venerable mentoring programs, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.

They met through Big Brothers Big Sisters' "Beyond School Walls" program, designed for busy professionals who have a passion for one-on-one philanthropy, but limited time.

Created in 2005 by the group's Southeastern Pennsylvania chapter, the program makes mentoring easier by eliminating the need to find time and things to do.

Young people are brought to workplaces, where they are paired with their mentors during lunch. Big Brothers Big Sisters even provides suggested activities: building "puff cars," for instance, straw frames with Life Saver candy wheels that accelerate with a blast of air.

"It is so simple and seamless," said Marlene L. Olshan, chief executive officer of the organization's Southeastern Pennsylvania chapter. "You have to eat lunch anyway. Once a week, have lunch with a kid and change that kid's life."

So far, Olshan has sold the concept to 13 local firms, including Cigna Corp., Comcast Corp., QVC Inc., and Wawa Inc. It is also catching on elsewhere in the country, she said.

Bentley Systems signed up last year. It was a natural fit, given that Greg Bentley, 54, had been a Big Brother in the 1970s. He cofounded the company 25 years ago with his four brothers, three of whom are still there and are part of the mentoring program, too.

Big Brothers Big Sisters matched Bentley Systems with Collegium Charter School and, with the school's help, identified students to be mentored.

The youngsters selected have a number of factors in their lives that might put them at risk of social or academic failure, Olshan said. Those include coming from a single-parent home, being at or below the poverty line, having no health insurance, and having a caregiver without a high school degree.

Last year, about 30 Bentley employees volunteered as mentors. Now, there are about 50, Greg Bentley said.

Every other week, the students are taken by bus to Bentley Systems, where they have lunch with their mentors.

"They are hard to miss," Bentley said. "When you have 40 to 50 10- and 11-year-olds show up, things tend to get a little lively."

And so it was yesterday when the yellow school bus disgorged its rather animated cargo. Boys and girls spilled into the company's lobby, hugging mentors, dashing to the lunch line, generally sounding delighted to be there.

"It pretty cool just getting out of school," was Xander's take on things.

Maria Yeo was among the employees there to greet the bus. The 61-year-old director of human resources mentors Mercedes Heredia-Ferran, a 10-year-old fond of doing crafts with her Big Sister.

"My son is grown, so this is my opportunity to be with a child again," Yeo said later, as she and Mercedes were eating.

She sized up her charge, who was polishing off a plate of chicken fingers.

"It is nice," Yeo said, "when your whole day doesn't revolve around work."