As the bulls roared around a narrow street corner, Chris Dennehy felt the adrenaline surge through his body. Like everyone else on the streets of Pamploma that day, he had dressed in white, and, for effect, tied a red scarf around his neck. “We were running, and suddenly I looked back and saw an ocean of white part and the bulls run by. I've got photos that show me in the same frame as a bull.” He was that close, he says, “but I was never in danger.”

Dennehy's trip to Spain to fulfill his dream of running with the bulls — for his bachelor party, no less — came true with the help of an unlikely partner — his employer, Minneapolis-based advertising agency Fallon Worldwide. Part employee-matched benefit program and part incentive program to retain talented employees, Dream Catchers lets employees stash away as much money through payroll deductions as they desire, with Fallon matching up to $2,500 over three years. Then they're free to take the cash and two weeks of paid vacation time to do whatever they choose.

“To take three weeks off for my wedding and then say, ‘I'm going to take another week for Spain’ — most companies would say no to that,” says Dennehy. “But they gave me the money, $1,000, and two weeks' paid vacation.

“It just reinforced my opinion of the company,” he adds. “Because even when you have a bad day or bad week at Fallon, no matter how bad it is, none of my friends' companies can compete.”

Just Do It

When the folks at Fallon talk about the wildest dreams they have brought to life this past year, Dennehy's is always the first mentioned. But there are many others: the husband and wife who took a motorcycle trip across Europe; the woman who took flamenco classes, and even a woman who chose to take two months off to clean out her closets and hang out with her children.

Dream Catchers got its start two years ago when John King, a 27-year-old media supervisor, got the idea while he was running and listening to Jackson Browne's “The Pretender.”

“The lyrics tell a sad story about a guy who was a fraud,” King says. “It's a horrible song for running. It's just sad; it's not what I want to happen to me. I thought, ‘What is important? What is the thing I have to do?’”

He decided that he wanted to write a novel about people who quit their jobs and start a company that helps others to reach their dreams. But as friends read his work in progress or talked to him about it, they often asked, “Why couldn't this happen in real life?”

Why couldn't it?

So King created Dream Catchers, which he formally proposed at an agency meeting in November 2000. Enrollment began 90 days later. Almost 50 percent of Fallon's 400 employees have since signed up for the program.

King has several favorites among the dreams that have already been completed.

“One guy made a movie,” he says. “A single mom went to Amsterdam to see the Van Gogh Museum. One woman went to Nantucket and literally did nothing. Her dream was to get The New York Times in the afternoon and read it at the beach. Another woman got all the materials for a black-and-white photography studio for her home.”

But, he says, “My favorite was a woman who said, ‘My dream is different. I'm going to pay a cleaning person for two years with the money. And the next two years of my life will be better because I'm not going to be scrubbing the sink out anymore.’”

Fred Senn, who says he is age “59 and one day,” a founding partner of Fallon and now chancellor of Fallon University, the agency's in-house training operation, helped King to sell management on Dream Catchers.

“I thought it was an intriguing culture idea,” he says. “It had a lot of opportunity to create cultural energy, and we see cultural energy as a strategic advantage.”

What they didn't know was how to make it work. As Senn puts it, “Like, what would the CFO think when he saw it?”

In fact, the CFO liked the idea too. Then it just became a case of working out the numbers.

Climb, Man, Climb

Paul Schield's dream comes with what people in Hollywood call a good back story.

Several years ago, before he became director of business development for Fallon Interactive, Schield, 39, and several of his buddies gathered to climb 14,495-foot Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevada. The trek was organized as a tribute to a co-worker who had recently died and, as one of his final wishes, had asked that his ashes be spread on the top of the mountain.

During the climb, when he was just 400 feet from the summit, Schield developed altitude sickness. As his comrades continued on, he was forced to return to the base of the mountain. As a gesture, the guys who made it to the top brought back a rock and gave it to the disappointed Schield as a souvenir.

“They told me, ‘Some day, you have to go and put it back up there.’”

Since then, replacing that rock has been Schield's dream. Last fall, he was all set to return when the tragic events of September 11 frustrated his intentions once more. Now he's eagerly reorganizing his friends for another assault on Mount Whitney later this year.

Bringing his friends together in one place is the other back story to Schield's dream. He has lived in half a dozen places since high school and has at least as many close relationships from each of those places.

“When it came time for me to fill out a form for Dream Catchers, I thought about what would be a really fantastic dream for myself. I thought of taking my kids to Disney World, but it didn't seem dreamy enough. Then I found myself reflecting on places and people. I've got at least one really good friend from all the places I've lived, and I've kept in touch with them all. There wasn't any other connection between these guys — I was the connection. But I always thought if these guys met each other, they'd get along. My idea was to get them together in one place at the same time for an activity.”

Some of his friends live on the West Coast, some are in the Midwest; one lives in Belize. All share an interest in adventure sports. His group will fly into Las Vegas, then caravan through Death Valley and bicycle from Badwater in Death Valley — the lowest elevation in the lower 48 states to which you can drive — to Mount Whitney, the highest point.

“I always thought it would be cool to do that in one experience,” Schield says. “We'll spend four or five nights camping together during a physical, grueling trip.”

One more detail: Schield plans to make the climb at night, during a full moon. “It'll be like daylight,” he says. “You can climb in the dark.”

Do Blue Skies

Fallon is a company filled with young, eclectic, bright men and women. People like Schield. People who aren't necessarily driven by retirement benefits. Their average age is 33.

That's exactly why Dream Catchers has been so successful.

“This is a place where dreaming is well-established,” says Senn. “You have to be able to do blue skies. We want people who want to write a novel, learn to play the French horn, or ride a camel in Saudi Arabia. Those things become more affordable later in your career. The whole idea is to get you thinking about it so you'll do it now and you won't keep postponing those dreams.”

Fallon would like to know up front what an employee's dream is, but it's not a requirement. “There are people whose dream is to get the garage painted. We're not going to deny you the opportunity to take your dog to obedience training. That's OK with us — but that's not what the program is about,” Senn says.

“We don't say you have to be creative,” King says. “But we do advertise the creative ones [dreams] within the company. Certain dreams are better headlines for inspiring people. It's rich territory for inspiring people.”

At the start of the program, King says, “We might have called the person who wanted to spend two weeks cleaning the garage and said, ‘Is that really what you want to do?’ But that's like dream profiling. You are classifying one dream as better than the other.”

One challenge was devising a formula for awarding Dream Catcher benefits while recipients were young enough to enjoy them. How long would a 27-year-old be willing to wait for the payoff? Five years seemed like an unthinkably long time.

“If you can't do it every three years,” Senn says, “it loses some of its appeal to the very group we're aiming at.”

When Dream Catchers was launched, Fallon jumpstarted the process by allowing employees with three years already under their belts at the agency to qualify immediately. “We needed to [reward] people early,” King says. “So if you pursued a dream the first year, you got $1,000. For me, it was more important to have the time than the money.” As a result, more than 50 people lived out their first dreams in the first year.

The program has been on hold since September 11, when major clients such as United Airlines cut back expenditures. “We laid off 25 percent of our people last year,” Senn says. “We also asked people who planned trips to postpone six months. And our people understood.”

Motorcycles, Mountains, and Me

Technically, it was her husband Mike's dream, says Jen Jagielski, Fallon records manager. But she still had a blast.

“My husband and I went to Europe and went on a motorcycle trip through the Alps,” she says. “He sent me an e-mail once that said, ‘We ought to do this one day.’ I said, ‘What are we waiting for?’”

The trip was planned just before the Dream Catchers program started — but a dream is a dream. And it didn't hurt Jagielski, 35, to have $1,000 of the company's money and two weeks of paid vacation to offset the $8,000 cost.

So there they were, Jen on a rented BMW R1100R and Mike on a Honda VFR, braving the hairpin curves, unlined roads, and scary roadside cliffs of the Alps. Their tour group included a writer for Cycle World, and Mike even had his picture published in the magazine.

“Dream Catchers is a great incentive,” Jen Jagielski says. “It says a lot about the company that they're willing to invest financially and give you the time. It's a nice way to know that your company cares about you. I know it sounds corny, but this company cares more about you as a person than just that you're here to do a job.”

Closet Queen

“My dream is not very big in itself,” says Beth Perro-Jarvis, 38, group director in Fallon's account services department. Sure — if you compare it to running with the bulls or climbing a mountain.

But for someone who endures deadline after grueling deadline, who sacrifices quantity for quality time when it comes to her two sons, ages 5 and 7, and who sounds like George Jetson on an ever-faster treadmill, the opportunity to push the pause button was the dream of a lifetime.

“My dream was just to be off-task a bit,” Perro-Jarvis says. “To take each day as a clean slate and make it about possibility and not have a boundary to everything. It's been years and years since I've had time.”

Perro-Jarvis dreamed of … organizing her closets. No kidding. “My life was so out of hand,” she explains. “I thought if I could just be organized, I'd have a peace of mind I don't normally have. I went through the house and dumped everything out of every closet and drawer. I did that for two weeks; it was very cathartic.”

While most Dream Catchers awards are built on two weeks' leave, she added her annual paid vacation weeks to the equation, then unpaid leave, to expand her dream summer to nine weeks off to spend with her kids. “They've always had a mom who works. It was such a luxury for them to have a mom who was present. For once I wasn't distracted or worrying about things at work. We went to an amusement park during the day for the first time. We went on the same ride four times in a row. We stayed till they closed. These were things we normally wouldn't have time to do.

“It's so ordinary,” she adds, somewhat defensively. “But it was so precious all at the same time. I have a great life. I do have it all, I think. But it comes with a cost.”

Those nine weeks have had lasting repercussions. “It was a bit of a wake-up call,” she says. “A lot of life happens when I'm at the office. I knew that, intellectually, but now I have felt it and experienced it. As a result, I've been better about taking off a day during the week and working the weekend instead. Because sometimes the boys … need me to be with them.”

Perro-Jarvis' husband happens to be a creative director at another Minneapolis advertising agency. She says he grew envious of the time her employer gave her to spend at home while keeping her seat warm at the office.

“Oh, yeah,” she recalls, laughing. “At the end of the day, I still had energy. He didn't. I would look in his eyes and realize that was usually me.”

The King's Dream

By now you must wonder: What was John King's wildest dream?

Well, since Dream Catchers began as an idea for a novel, but he had never had the time to finish it or try to get it published, King decided that was what he wanted to do.

So in February 2001, he took a week off and wrote “what amounts to a sloppy novel.” Early every morning, he and his laptop found a comfortable table at Old Man River's coffee shop in St. Paul and did nothing but write.

“I would wake up earlier than I would normally to go to work. I would stay all day, eat lunch there, go home at my regular time, and then go back the next day. By the end of the week, it [the book] had a beginning, a middle, and an end,” he says proudly. “It was 125 pages. It was about writing the book I needed to write. It was from my life, autobiographical. It was beautiful for me.”

He went to Kinko's and printed three bound copies. “Next, I want to crank it out on a bigger scale and make 85 more copies for friends and family. And then, can I find a way to get this to Sean Penn?”

Fred Senn admires what King has started. “He's a bright young manager, on his way up. He understands the culture of the company, and he understands creativity. He's connected to the humanity of the place and he cares about the people he works with. A real mensch.”

In fact, King may soon be the father of something bigger than his own dream — or even Fallon's program. He receives a steady stream of letters and e-mail from companies and organizations around the world that are interested in learning more about Dream Catchers. One inquiry came from Beau Carpenter, associate director of the Carbon Nanotechnology Laboratory at Rice University.

“We're in the process of benchmarking [Dream Catchers],” Carpenter says. “We'll soon present it to the staff and put it forward as a potential benefit. It seems like a good retention tool that gives an added dimension to the workplace. Our faculty has sabbatical, but the staff does not have anything similar.”

Carpenter says he hopes to see Dream Catchers implemented into the school's 2004 benefits package.

“A lot of people have contacted me about this program,” King says. “Our philosophy is that we want this idea to spread. We have an open-door policy. We'll try to help people do it. We're giving the information away.

“I would love to become known one day as the weird change agent from Minneapolis.”