People say Sonoma County is unique. I don't know if that's true, because I haven't seen the rest of the world yet. But I do know I love this place, especially this time of year.

The North Coast seems to become a series of postcards in April. An old horse grazing near a splintered rail fence. A wheelbarrow engulfed in wildflowers. Oaks scattered like jacks on a green hill — under a cloud that looks like a crown.

These are the snapshots that bind us in appreciation for our natural environment. They are the scenes that we drink up as we share a toast to what we call home.

What we don't always recognize, however, is that other side of what makes Sonoma County beautiful.

Thursday morning, I had a chance to see some of these other snapshots. They were on display at the American Red Cross' ninth annual Real Heroes Breakfast. And it was so moving, I decided to set aside what I was going to write about to focus on these instead. (I'll discuss the homeowners of Lucas Valley another time.)

By contrast, this was a series of portraits, video presentations to be exact, of some the finest people the North Coast has to offer. These are individuals who are making life better — for others.

One is Lee Gooding, a gentle soul and a non-combat veteran of the Vietnam era who was troubled that roughly 18 veterans in America take their lives every day. So he decided to do something about it. He created a program to help vets, particularly those dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, find the things that make life full — from writing to creating art to gardening.

Through his Santa Rosa-based organization Helping American Veterans Endure, or HAVE, he organized and built a series of vegetable beds outside the Santa Rosa VA Outpatient Clinic on Airport Boulevard. They call it the Veterans Organic Peace Garden. The beds are high enough and far enough apart that even those in wheelchairs can tend plants.

If you visit, you're likely to see a labyrinth soon as well, one in the shape of a peace sign. It will be right in the flight path of aircraft heading for Sonoma County airport. "I want people coming here to see the peace sign," Gooding says with a grin in a video shown to the 400 or so gathered in Rohnert Park Thursday to honor these individuals.

Another was Tom Furrer, the retired teacher from Casa Grande High School, who, after lecturing about environmental degradation years ago, was confronted by a student who stood and asked, "What can we do?"

At that moment the class ended. "I was literally saved by the bell," he says with a laugh on the video. Or so he thought. The student didn't budge. "Well?" he asked.

Stumped, Furrer took a walk to ponder the question and found himself looking at garbage-strewn, dead Adobe Creek. That seminal moment gave birth to one of the most inspiring school projects in Sonoma County history. In the 30 years since that stroll, students have adopted the creek, brought it back to life and established the United Anglers Conservation Hatchery, which has helped save the steelhead in the creek and earned national recognition. The program also has hatched generations of conservation-minded adults, many of whom have made careers in pursuit of their own answer to the question, "What can we do?"

There was Gabe Lopez, who was returning home to Hidden Valley Lake one day in December when he saw a neighbor's house engulfed in flames. Lopez, a firefighter and paramedic, rushed toward the fire where he found one young man suffering from severe burns and saw 18-year-old Kevin Hart, on fire, stumbling from the home. Lopez put out the fire and with the help of a number of public safety workers — all of whom deserved and got a round of applause — was able to get the victims the help they need.

The mother of one child told a crowd at Rohnert Park's Doubletree Hotel that her son will be released from the hospital next month. "If Gabe had waited 30 seconds (before taking action) he wouldn't be coming home," she said. "Thank you."

There were so many pictures like this. I wish I could describe them all.

There was the story of Santa Rosa eye surgeon Gary Barth, who regularly travels to Nepal to help restore the eyesight of rural residents. There's Glenn Langer, a retired UCLA professor in Mendocino County, who, along with his wife, Marianne, runs a mentoring program to help disadvantaged kids get to and through college. And there's the bear-like volunteer Louis Hopfer, whose broad smile, guidance and friendship has helped many young residents at Tomayo House transition from foster homes or homelessness to lives of independence.

And there was Chris Cox, who while driving through Cotati on Jan. 17 spotted a burning, smoke-filled car, heard the engine revving and had the fortitude to jump a fence and do something uncommon. Opening the car door, he found an unconscious woman, Ricki Ann Thiele, with a dog on her lap. With the help of a utility tool he carried with him, he cut her from her seatbelt and helped get her and her dog to safety.

What the people at that scene didn't know is that Cox lost his son in a car crash just three months before that. Danny Cox, who had been paralyzed a year earlier in a diving accident in Lake Tahoe, was 19 when he died. He had wanted to be a firefighter, Cox told the Rohnert Park audience.

"It was my son shining down on me," he said of his actions. "He was saying, &amp;&lsquo;If I can't help people, I want you to do it.'<TH>"

He cradled the engraved glass "Good Samaritan" award he had just received. "My son would be very proud of me," he said looking at the audience.

Yes, indeed.

We all have heroes inside of us, Cox told us before sitting down. Maybe. But it's comforting enough to know that we have heroes among us.

It seems to me we get torn down by the big things in life — foreclosures and job losses. But then we are built up again by the small things, by snapshots of Sonoma County in spring — and by stories like these.

I don't know if this makes Sonoma County unique. But it makes it home. And it keeps us moving forward.

Paul Gullixson is editorial director for The Press Democrat. Email him at paul.gullixson@pressdemocrat.com.