Editor's Note: The Kyiv Independent spoke with the children interviewed for this story with the permission of their parents.
Ten-year-old Kyiv resident Valeriia Yezhova never imagined that one day she would meet renowned Ukrainian comedian, politician and volunteer Serhiy Prytula, let alone make him cry.
Tears ran down Prytula's eyes when he saw Yezhova pulling out a wad of cash from her purse in his charity's office on July 11.
Yezhova raised money by playing checkers with passersby on the streets of Kyiv for donations. It took her a bit over a week to raise Hr 21,000 ($575), which she donated to Prytula's foundation to support the Ukrainian military.
"It is impossible to defeat our nation with such children," Prytula said as filmed while meeting Yezhova.
World checkers champion Yezhova could not just watch her beloved country being destroyed by Russia. She decided to help those fighting to defend Ukraine.
And she is not alone. Since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, dozens of children all over the country have been raising money to support Ukraine's Armed Forces. Some of them play music on the streets, or sell their paintings, crafts or flowers that they grow themselves. Other children donate their own savings to support soldiers.
Such stories often attract a lot of support online as cute little efforts in Ukraine’s ongoing fight for survival. But they also point to a terrifying fact that millions of children in Ukraine were robbed of carefree and happy childhoods.
Many children are forced to hide from bombardments in basements. Some become witnesses of attacks and even killings. Others have to adapt to new environments after fleeing homes in dangerous areas.
According to Afshan Khan, UNICEF's Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia, almost two-thirds of Ukrainian children are displaced either internally or across the border as refugees.
Russia’s war has also killed at least 358 children and injured 690 since Feb. 24, according to the Prosecutor General’s Office. However, prosecutors say that the numbers are expected to be much higher since authorities do not have access to data on casualties in the Russian-occupied territories and areas with active hostilities.
‘Let's play – let's help’
Valeriia Yezhova, 10 years old, Kyiv
Checkers star Yezhova never thought her favorite hobby would evolve into something that could help the Ukrainian army fight the Russian troops.
One of Russia's missile attacks not far from her family’s home in Kyiv made them spend about a week hiding in a nearby bomb shelter. Then they relocated to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv for a month before returning home in early April, after Russia was forced to retreat from the north of Ukraine.
But the war didn’t end with the liberation of northern regions. And Yezhova didn’t want to stand aside.
"I wanted to help our soldiers, our army, and asked my mom what I can do," Yezhova says. "She asked me what I do best, and I said, ‘play checkers.’"
Yezhova’s mother, Liubov Kvitka-Yezhova, was worried about her daughter's idea. She did not want her to be disappointed in case only few people want to play checkers with her.
But what a great surprise it was for her to see a line of people waiting for a game of checkers with Yezhova on June 28, the first day the girl went to play for donations.
Sitting outside of one of Kyiv's supermarkets with a sign "For Ukraine's Armed Forces. Let's play – let's help," the girl raised Hr 1,200 in less than two hours.
"At first, she thought that raising Hr 5,000 would be amazing. When she raised it, she told me, 'Let's raise Hr 10,000,'" Kvitka-Yezhova says.
Yezhova wasn't worried about the games, and not once did she lose. Onсе, a man gave her $50 after losing the game. Another woman approached to thank the girl on behalf of her husband, a Ukrainian soldier.
In total, she has so far raised Hr 49,000 ($1,360).
Her example inspired others. Ever since photographs of her raising money for the military spread across social media, many other young checker players from all over Ukraine started doing the same.
Yezhova herself plans to continue to raise funds for the army: "Up until the victory of Ukraine," she says.
Bake, sell, donate
Yeva Hrushchynska, 5 years old, Lviv Oblast
Everything changed about the life of Yeva Hrushevska, a five-year-old from the town of Pustomyty in Lviv Oblast, when Russia launched a full-scale invasion against her country.
Her family couldn’t safely travel across Ukraine as they used to anymore. Yeva’s mother Maria Hrushchynska says they started spending most of their time inside. The little entertainment that the girl still had was drawing pictures at home.
Tired of this new reality, Yeva once wondered if she could sell some of her drawings to raise money for Ukraine's military.
"I decided to support our soldiers so that the war would end quickly and my dad and I could go to Poland to the zoo," Yeva says.
"Yeva wanted to do at least something (for the military)," her mother says.
One day in early May, the two put out a table outside and laid out Yeva's drawings for sale. But they couldn't sell much so Yeva's grandmother offered to try to sell something sweet and tasty, like muffins.
They baked the first batch of 30 muffins and decided to sell them for Hr 2 each. To their surprise, they sold all of the freshly-baked pastries quite soon, raising Hr 100 ($2.7).
"I wasn't worried (about not selling muffins),” Yeva says. “I knew they were delicious."
Maria says none of their customers pay the actual price but always donate "all the cash from their pockets." People often come to savor their "fresh and chubby" muffins and tell stories about their friends or loved ones defending Ukraine.
With the help of her family, Yeva has already raised around Hr 2,000 ($55). Maria has donated the money to the fundraising account launched by the National Bank of Ukraine for donations to support the military.
Even though it's not a lot, they are happy to make their "contribution to the fight against Russian aggression."
"We need to support them (Ukrainian soldiers) so everything works out for them, and they return home as soon as possible," says Yeva.
Oleksandr Panchenko, 10 years old, Chernivtsi
This summer, 10-year-old Oleksandr Panchenko from Chernivtsi wanted to go to the seaside with his parents and visit his mother's native town in the east of Ukraine.
But Russia's war made it impossible.
He now has to spend his summer holidays at home. And even the glimpses of his carefree summertime are constantly interrupted by the need to hide in bomb shelters. His father, Viacheslav Panchenko, says Oleksandr was crying when he first heard air-raid sirens in February. He was terrified, Panchenko says.
Seeing how other children help the Ukrainian military inspired Oleksandr as well.
The boy's first idea was to sell some tasty food for donations, but he soon understood it was not an option since he "would eat everything" and raise nothing. Then he saw his mother creating some patriotic bracelets and decided to join her.
Almost every night since then, Oleksandr and his mother create pins, hair hoops, bracelets, and trinkets adorned with Ukrainian symbols such as the trident (the country's coat of arms), blue-yellow ribbons, and various flowers. He sells them at a local park.
Each item costs Hr 20 ($0.55), but Oleksandr says people often give him more.
"Some say that it's for me to buy some ice cream, and I say it's for our Armed Forces," Panchenko says.
He was touched when a commander of some Ukrainian tank brigade came to thank him one day and bought a key chain with a bullet from the boy. Oleksandr says he admires Ukrainian soldiers.
"Our warriors are invincible," he says. "They have this spirit of cossacks."
Panchenko started raising money around two months ago and has so far donated Hr 11,000 ($300) to a local charity in Chernivtsi. He hopes they will use the money to buy something useful for Ukrainian soldiers, like a thermal imaging system or even a Javelin anti-tank missile.
But for that, the boy needs to raise much more. And he is ready to do it.
"(I'll continue) because we need to stop these killings of civilians, we need to stop this war."
Music for superheroes
Solomiia Reut, 7 years old, Dnipro
Every time little Solomiia sees Ukrainian soldiers on the streets of her native Dnipro, she starts smiling and calls them "superheroes."
Her mother, Kseniia Reut, says Solomiia was raised "in an atmosphere of love for Ukraine" surrounded by patriots. So when Russia started its full-scale invasion, they all started volunteering, including little Solomiia.
One day, the girl’s music teacher offered the kids to donate their savings to the military. But the girl did not have any savings back then and decided to raise some money by playing her flute in the city center.
Solomiia learned how to play the anthem of Ukraine and some other songs for the occasion. In late April, Solomiia performed at one of Dnipro’s squares.
She raised more than Hr 4,800 ($132) over a 1.5-hour show.
"We didn't expect to raise so much," her mother says.
After she posted photographs of Solomiia performing on Facebook, adding her card details for people to donate, the family was surprised even more: Donations from all over Ukraine started coming their way.
They eventually raised nearly Hr 110,000 ($3,000) in one week.
Thanks to little Solomiia, Ukrainian soldiers got five bulletproof vests, helmets, many first aid kits, some medicine, thermal blankets, a thermal imager, and even a solar station. She also donated Hr 30,000 for a drone fundraiser.
Thanks to the Kyiv Independent's tweet about Solomiia, an Iraqi journalist working for the Mosul Eye news blog contacted Kseniia and offered to send a new flute to her. It is expected to soon arrive to the girl.
Solomiia continues performing. Besides playing flute, the girl has learned to play the sopilka, a Ukrainian wooden reed pipe, and some more Ukrainian songs. She says that "Ukraine," a famous piece by singer Taras Petrynenko is the one she enjoys playing the most.
"I like to play music, but even more, I like when superheroes send us pictures of what we have bought and sent them," Solomiia says.
"I support them to bring our victory closer."