Massapequa's Ryan Hirschhorn in front of his creation when it...

Massapequa's Ryan Hirschhorn in front of his creation when it was on display in January at the Long Island Children’s Museum in Uniondale. Credit: Howard Simmons

Whenever eighth-grader Ryan Hirschhorn has seen photographs or news footage of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Massapequa 13-year-old could see a bit of himself and the sort of person he aspired to be.

He has admired Zelenskyy's determination and purpose amid such steep odds, Ryan said — the embattled leader of a country fighting for survival in its bloody war with Russia.

As it turns out, Zelenskyy might see a bit of himself in Ryan.

The two met last week in Washington, D.C., where “Hearts for Ukraine," a metal art project created by Ryan as a show of solidarity with the country, and painted in the country's blue and yellow national colors, went on display at the cultural center Ukraine House.

Olena Zelenska, left, watches as her husband, Ukrainian President Volodymyr...

Olena Zelenska, left, watches as her husband, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, thanks Ryan Hirschhorn for his public art supporting Ukraine during an address at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., last Thursday. Credit: AFP via Getty Images/Brendan Smialowski

Zelenskyy addressed Ryan directly in a speech he gave standing in front of the U.S. Constitution at the National Archives with Ryan and his family in attendance. He also presented Ryan with the Golden Heart, an award commissioned by the Ukrainian president in December to recognize volunteers helping the country since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an invasion in 2022. Ryan was the 78th person in the world to receive the award.

“Never before has there been such a powerful unity between Ukraine and America, but what can be more convincing than when America’s children are eager to help defend freedom,” Zelenskyy said, in reference to Ryan and his “Hearts for Ukraine."

Ryan said he lived a dream when he met the Ukrainian president, the unexpected culmination of an effort that started back in January when his work went on display at the Long Island Children’s Museum in Uniondale.

“I wanted to meet him since the start of this and that was my goal, to make President Zelenskyy aware of what I wanted to accomplish and for him to talk about me was really cool,” the Berner Middle School student said in an interview.

His artwork has fit in well with the museum's efforts to "find ways to explain difficult subjects and connect in simple ways," said museum president Erika Floreska. "Our mission is to inspire and explore and create a sense of wonder for kids. All three of those things were on display in Ryan’s project. The simple human story of what he did, and that a child can be that messenger, went so far beyond our wildest dreams."

Ryan donated his exhibit to the Colorado charity Project C.U.R.E., which sends medical supplies overseas and works with the Ukrainian Embassy. His project was on display for International Women's Day in March at Ukraine House, a cultural center and charity organizer in Washington, D.C.

So far, the exhibit has helped raise more than $200,000 for charities and medical supplies pegged for Ukraine, according to Jason Hirschhorn, Ryan's father, a figure confirmed by Halyna Yusypiuk, a spokeswoman for the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington, D.C.

"He raised $200,000 for the Project C.U.R.E., an organization that supplies medical devices, equipment, and medicines to Ukraine," Yusypiuk said.

The art piece is currently on display at the Ukrainian Consulate in Chicago. Other exhibits and fundraisers are planned for Denver, Houston and Minneapolis.

Ryan's art piece comprises three murals, one 4-by-8-foot panel and two others, the largest spanning 9 by 9 feet, made of metal with blue and yellow hearts carved through. He later added an LED light sensor that is interactive when someone approaches.

It got the attention of people in Washington, D.C., and two weeks ago, Ryan’s family received a call from Ukraine House, inviting them to the National Archives to meet a "special guest." He didn’t know until shortly before he arrived that it was part of President Zelenskyy's address or that he would be a prime focus.

“This young man," Zelenskyy said, "with his father, launched an inspiring project using hearts. It is a blue-and-yellow sculpture that reminds other people, other communities, other nations what freedom is all about. Ryan could just spend his time with a PlayStation … but Ryan has a strong, great heart.”

Ryan said he never expected to meet Zelenskyy but hoped his work would have a wide-reaching effect to help others. 

“I never thought we’d make it that far. I knew a lot of good things would happen because of this, and the best thing happened,” Ryan said. “I’m so proud of everyone who has been part of my journey and I can’t wait to see what happens next.”

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