WINTHROP — Malachi Walo often felt anonymous in the halls of Winthrop Middle School. Almost nobody noticed him, or took a moment to get to know the 12-year-old boy and his dry wit, cheery good nature or that smile that makes you want to smile right back.

That’s why it was so strange to return to those same halls after the Jan. 10 fire at the family home on Route 133. Walo, who woke his two older siblings and helped get them out of their apartment as flames began to fan to life, garnered the attention of media outlets across the state. The boy who sometimes felt invisible now had his photo plastered across local newspapers and watched himself on the evening news.

“When I went to school before the fire I would just be, like, that kid over there,” Walo said. “Now people actually know my name. I kinda feel good.”

WITH LOSS COMES ‘AWAKENING’

So much has changed in the month since the fire. The family has a new place to live that is bigger and better than before, but that’s not the biggest difference, says Walo’s mother, Michelle Hartman. What she has seen is a family that is closer now and appreciates what it has more than before.

The fire took much that the family would have said was vital to its happiness, but when the flames were out Hartman said the only thing that really mattered was that her children were safe.

“It was kind of like a spiritual awakening,” Hartman said. “Everything changes without you doing the change, so there’s a level of acceptance that you didn’t have before. You look at things with less judgment. The negative stuff that you carry around sometimes, you have a different set of eyes. You look at things differently now.”

Hartman believes she would have lost her family had it not been for Malachi. The American Legion agrees. Walo on Thursday was invited to a dinner at the Alfred W. Maxwell Jr. American Legion Post 40, during which he was presented with a certificate and medal for heroism.

“We’re just lucky he was able to think as good as he did,” said his 17-year-old sister, Dakotah Knox. “I’m really grateful he was able to get me out.”

Legion member Bill Crawley and members of the local post were struck by Walo’s actions and thought them worthy of recognition. The local post submitted the story to the Legion’s national headquarters.

“The national thought we were correct,” Crawley said. “It’s really a big deal.”

Hartman and her partner, Aaron Cook, had gone to the gym less than two miles away the morning of Jan. 10. Walo, Knox and their brother, 14-year-old Jeremyah Barnes, were still asleep in the apartment the family rented in the four-unit building. The fire started around 8 a.m. in the kitchen in the area of a space heater and microwave.

“I remember smelling really bad stuff and wondering what it was,” Walo said. “I really couldn’t breathe.”

Walo, whose room was next to the kitchen, got out of bed to investigate and saw fire coming from the area of the heater. Smoke detectors began screeching moments later.

“I didn’t think it was an actual fire so I didn’t pay much attention,” Knox said.

Walo first ran to wake Barnes and then ran upstairs to get Knox.

“The stairs weren’t that smoky when I went up, but they were really smoky when I went down,” Walo said. “It took me awhile to get down. I kept going into my sister’s room to get more air.”

After getting downstairs, the children got their dog, Sage, out of the house and Knox called Hartman and Cook at the gym and then called the fire department.

“He did a great job,” Winthrop Fire Chief Dan Brooks said of Walo on the day of the fire. “He basically discovered the fire and got everybody out of the house before there was a bigger issue.”

‘SMILING NOW’

The drive from the gym, though only a few minutes, seemed to take forever, Hartman said. Suddenly the list of things in her life that mattered came into sharp focus. Her children topped that list, followed by Sage, the dog. Hartman remembers sitting in Cook’s car, overcome by emotion, wondering about the mementos, such as pictures and colorings done by her children over the years. They all survived the fire.

“All the things I was crying about were the things that were not tampered with,” Hartman said. “I’m smiling now.”

Nearly everything else, including furniture and clothing, was destroyed. The American Red Cross paid for the family to stay several days at the Fairfield Inn in Augusta. That gave their friends and neighbors all the time they needed to rally around the family.

“This community, when something happens, they don’t let you go without,” Hartman said.

Cook still marvels at the support, both physical and emotional, that the family continues to receive.

“In four days we were in a new place and had beds,” he said.

The family is renting a new house, just down the street from the old one. The new house is bigger and has a front yard, which Walo says will be perfect for playing tag.

UNFLAPPABLE MOST OF THE TIME

“I have my own room now,” Walo said. “I haven’t seen my brother in a while. I see him every once in a while, like when he goes to get grape juice.”

Walo jokes and speaks calmly as he recounts the events of Jan. 10.

“I don’t know why, but it wasn’t that scary,” he said. “I’ve played video games that were scarier than that.”

Walo has speculated he was so calm because of all the time spent around campfires with his dad. He grew accustomed to being around flames.

“I knew there was a fire in the house so we couldn’t be in the house, but the fire didn’t scare me,” Walo said.

He admits he is not always so unflappable.

“The one thing I can’t keep my head level in is a test, especially in math,” Walo said.

The family is returning to a routine, but things are different, especially for Walo. As he talks about meeting new people and the support he has received at school, it’s hard to imagine that he is the same boy who just weeks earlier wondered if his life had any purpose.

” ‘I don’t matter,’ ” Hartman recalled Walo saying. ” ‘It doesn’t matter if I’m here.’ And then 48 eight hours later, less than that, boom! Look at everything that happened to show you, in a huge way, that you matter.”