Suddenly, we're awash in heroes.

This week in a Boston showroom, the Democrats rolled out such icons as Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy, and introduced a sporty new model, Barack Obama. The Olympics, sports' biggest hero-maker, are arriving on the heels of the bicycle race that for six straight years has been the Tour de Lance. In "Spider-Man 2," sticky-fingered do-gooder Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) caught the girl of his dreams -- and some $340 million of our box office dollars.

Then there's "Catwoman," in which Halle Berry makes another superhero bid by playing a woman who is brought back from the dead to save the world from an evil face cream. Really.

Poor Halle. Clearly, she -- like Maguire and filmdom's assorted Batmans before her -- craved her own quick and easy action hero franchise. Who wouldn't?

But true heroism is hard. In politics, it couldn't be rarer, however powerfully John Kerry's long-ago bravery in battle contrasts with President Bush's Air National Guard absences. Sports heroes certainly deserve accolades for the effort and commitment that fuel their jaw-dropping feats. Yet physiologists say that most of today's professional athletes are special physical specimens who are from birth far stronger, faster and more coordinated than the rest of us. Which puts their amazing achievements in perspective.

And movie heroes? Sept. 11, 2001, changed my view of them forever. Watching the unthinkable, I half-expected, or perhaps just wished, that a real-life Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger would appear and -- as countless movies have shown us -- save the day.

Flesh-and-blood heroes did, of course, emerge. Far from omnipotent, many of them died. In the aftermath, something died in me as well -- some capacity to swallow the flashy, unearned "heroism" that pop culture would sell us.

Heroism, I re-realized, comes at a cost -- in time, effort, sometimes in blood. Heroism doesn't require superpowers. In fact, it's our vulnerability, every human being's inherent fragility, that makes risks and sacrifices so powerful.

Which is good news. Because it means that any fragile, overworked, got-no-spare-time one of us can be some kind of hero. Now, even small acts of generosity, offered by everyday people who don't have to give them, seem more heroic to me than any action hero's onscreen bravado.

This Saturday, three local do-gooders -- Tommi Blake of Gift of Touch, Diane Stevens of the Cinderella Foundation and Monife Marshall of Live Luv -- are sponsoring "An Afternoon on the Water: Three Foundations, One Purpose" at H2O in Southwest. (Go to www.threefoundationsonepurpose

.com for details).

Each woman's nonprofit organization provides much-needed services to those who otherwise wouldn't get them. Each of the women could easily spend her time, toil and money on other stuff.

But what would be heroic about that?

Blake, a licensed massage therapist, created Gift of Touch, which provides free massages to those who can't afford them, after realizing that "the two most forgotten groups are kids and seniors," she says.

The deep, abiding gratitude of her elderly clients taught her that "when you get older, people touch you for two reasons: to take money from your hand or to poke you at doctors' offices," Blake, 41, says. Her work with youngsters suggested that "many kids' first introduction to touch after their parents' touch is unwelcome -- a spanking or an unwanted sexual advance."

Volunteers in Blake's "bank" of 30 therapists visit clients at nursing homes, apartments and after-school programs because "touch is too powerful a need for people not to receive it just because they can't afford it."

Three years ago, a friend told Stevens, owner of the Cole Stevens day spa in Greenbelt, about a disheveled and dispirited teenage girl at her church whose drug-addicted mom hadn't taught her basic grooming skills. Stevens gave the girl a series of hair, nail and grooming packages. Before long, the teenager "got a bounce in her step and became a pom-pom girl," Stevens, 41, says. "I figured if one girl can be touched, why not put a program in place for more?"

Stevens, a married mom of three, and other volunteers offer grooming, etiquette and life lessons to more than a dozen adolescents whose situations demand that they learn nearly everything on their own. Says Stevens: "I asked one girl where she'd go if she could go anywhere in the whole world, and she said, 'Adventureworld'. . . .

"One day, I'd like her to say the Kennedy Center or New York. It's all about exposure."

Marshall, a former corporate sales executive, admits that she sometimes feels "drained" by her work with Live Luv, which provides advice, tutoring, educational seminars and discussion groups to at-risk young people. "But I'm very clear why I'm doing it: to have an impact on kids who need it," she says. "I could make a lot more money in corporate America, but this is what I think I was created to do."

Does she feel heroic? Marshall, 34, pauses. "When one of my kids 10 years from now finishes med school, maybe then I'll feel heroic.

"Now, I just feel like I'm doing what I have to do to make a difference."

Say the "H" word to Blake and she laughs. Her charitable work, she insists, "isn't about me. But I love when I walk into a nursing home and somebody says, 'Tommi!' or when clients call me saying, 'I need you; where are you?' Everyone, no matter what they say, needs to be wanted, to be needed.

"When you're wanted or needed for something positive, that's powerful."