Patricia Heaton

Patricia Heaton

As one of this year's judges in what has become an annual holiday event, Patricia Heaton was holding out for some heroes.

The current star of ABC's "The Middle" and alum of "Everybody Loves Raymond" is on a celebrity panel -- also including Sir Richard Branson, Ricky Martin and Apolo Anton Ohno, among others -- for "CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute," the fourth edition of the Anderson Cooper-hosted special that the cable news network presents Thanksgiving night (Thursday, Nov. 25) from Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium.

"I looked at everybody else who was in there" as a judge, Heaton says, "and I never thought I'd be on the same list as Muhammad Ali, but I was thrilled. I'm just a lowly sitcom actress, so it was pretty cool. And any time you're hailing unsung heroes who are doing work that has a great impact on people's lives, it's wonderful to be able to bring light to those actions."

Among those chosen as "CNN Heroes" for 2010: a Scot who feeds more than 400,000 children daily, worldwide and for free; a Nepal resident who helps sex-trafficking victims in her country; a Cambodian who has cleared nearly 50,000 land mines and weapons; and a Mississippi woman who's put her entire town on a diet.

"They sent us a large packet with all the nominees and descriptions of what they do," Heaton reports, "then we were asked to choose five candidates. They went to all the other panelists and got their five, then determined who were the finalists."

Each of the Top 10 CNN Heroes receives $25,000, and the person selected as Hero of the Year (selected through online voting that ran through Nov. 18) gets $100,000 on top of that.

And it's not an easy process, Heaton maintains: "I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, every single one of these people should be nominated.' There's so much that needs to be done in the world, and they're all addressing different areas.

"I guess the reason the (judging) panel is so diverse," Heaton adds, "is that each of us has these soft spots in our hearts. I'm a mom, so of course, (issues of) women and children pull at my heartstrings a lot."