CONTRA COSTA -- Sustainable Contra Costa's fourth annual Leadership in Sustainability Awards Gala at Walnut Creek's Shadelands Art Center on Oct. 24 celebrated a rare competition in which the fiercer the battle, the more everyone wins.

Among Wednesday's winners were one of the founders of Sustainable Lafayette; the Urban Farmers group, which has had a pilot growing project in Lafayette; and planners of what the former Concord Naval Weapons Station will become.

The nonprofit Sustainable Contra Costa's purpose is to help merge individual and corporate purposes through collaborative partnerships.

Founder and President Tina King Neuhausel said in an interview four days before the Oct. 24 gala that event that Sustainable Contra Costa has grown organically as more people understand how their choices impact their children's futures.

"We're good at helping them understand what changes are right for them. We inspire people to take that (first) step. I find that once people get started taking action, they feel good and look for what they can do next."

Call them "baby steps," and Neuhausel points to a new initiative, the wildly successful "350 Home & Garden Challenge." With a goal to collect 350 "actions" from county residents -- from planting vegetables to attracting bees to buying an electric car -- the program will need a new name after 997 such activities were registered.

"These people want to be a part of it because they understand that a sustainable world will only happen if we all work together to create it," she said.

After welcoming remarks from Walnut Creek Mayor Bob Simmons, gala guests heard about local agriculture and from Jana Chamales of the Sustainable Building Advisors Program about "living buildings" that process their own water and give back more energy than they consume.

Recycling water for use in landscape irrigation, an agrarian topic with rock star status in California, earned special attention from Central Contra Costa Sanitary District's Don Berger and Congressman John Garamendi.

The evening's biggest splash was the 2012 Leadership Awards. A 13-judge panel of local community members who understand or work in a field supporting sustainable practices selected winners in seven categories, and honored one individual for Lifetime Achievement. The awards were presented by Danville Mayor Newell Arnerich and Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez.

  • Janet Thomas, winner of the "Individual" Award, is a founding member of Sustainable Lafayette, and her vision of a community garden inspired $90,000 in support, volunteers in the hundred's, and 50 households who now tend the food-sharing, education-spreading, Lafayette Community Garden and Outdoor Learning Center.

    "If the Sustainability Awards were based on popularity, Janet would have set a record for most votes," said Neuhausel.

  • Instrumental in conserving Cowell Ranch as the new John Marsh State Park and earning accolades for opposing cement in the form of a proposed toll freeway near Mt. Diablo, John Chapman protected Brentwood farms, created the Richmond Farm 2 Table CSA, and founded the Livable Communities Initiative and the Great Communities Collaborative, two organizations supporting smart growth in urban CC county communities.

    "John Chapman has worked tirelessly for years on smart-growth projects and land-use issues," Neuhausel said.

  • Urban Farmers, the "Community/Nonprofit" winner led by Cameron and Siamack Sioshansi, generated foodie love by initiating a zero-mile system that makes it easy to donate unused produce to local hunger relief agencies. Appealing especially to young people, more than 400 college students have volunteered and more than 750 fruit trees have been planted in area backyards. A lafayette garden has been a pilot project for this group.

  • The City of Concord Naval Weapons Station Planning won the "Smart Growth" award for a project rivaling previous sustainability efforts in the county's history, according to Neuhausel.

    "They are setting an example for other cities because they're engaging the public in a comprehensive planning process that will result in building a community where people want to (live). This type of planning creates a win-win for everyone."

  • The "Government" award went to the City of El Cerrito's Recycling and Environmental Resource Center, reopened in 2012 as a LEED-Platinum facility and praised for its handling of hard-to-recycle materials and educational outreach.

  • Mt. Diablo High School's "Food for a Healthy Community" program, led by Cindy Gershen and championing her "change the food ... change everything" slogan, was honored in the "School" category. Breaking down the walls between education and commerce, Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla's Bill 2367 enabled Mt. Diablo High students to grow and sell produce from their "market garden."

  • "Small Business" winner Natural Home Cleaning represented not only sustainable business practices, but the best efforts of Concord's Michael Chavez Center to promote diverse opportunities for people of all backgrounds.

  • John Muir Health Commute Solutions captured the "Large Organization" award by achieving a 28 percent reduction in single occupancy commuting between facilities and offering employee incentives and customer support for "good neighbor" transportation.

    The honors, of course, were shared by the list of finalists, whose work was hardly less impressive for having placed second. For a complete list of top nominees and to learn how residents of Contra Costa County are the ultimate winners, go to http://www.sustainablecoco.org/