Expo brings ultimate girls’ day out

Carissa Wassenaar (right) with Go Dance Ballroom Studio demonstrates some dance moves with a partner for Expo attendees. Photo by Jenna Stambaugh.

The Knoxville Expo Center on Clinton Highway was transformed into a women’s wonderland of shopping, self-indulgence and overall good health when it hosted the Third Annual Knoxville Women’s Expo this weekend.

There were nearly 200 vendors offering a dizzying array of goods, services and entertainment ranging from makeovers to fashion shows. A bevy of experts were also on hand to give their best advice on finances, cooking, fitness and almost every other topic that a 21st century woman could want. 

Some of the exhibits could have been pulled from a Facebook newsfeed set to “show only posts from friends trying to sell me something,” as there were plenty of modern-day Tupperware party replacements like Pure Romance, Mary Kaye and Paparazzi Jewelry.  

Nestled between the corporate monoliths,  however, were some true local gems.

  Donna Lerlie stands next to a display highlighting some of her hand-made scarves. Photo by Jenna Stambaugh.

One of those, in fact, sold literal gems that had been made into intricate, one-of-a-kind pieces of jewelry.  

Donna Lerlie, who owns Sassy Girl Clothing and Jewelry Designs, also had handmade chiffon scarves and jewelry for sale at her booth. The 500 scarves and hundreds of pieces of jewelry were all made by her alone. 

Lerlie takes pride in personally sourcing her stones, which lets her know they are coming from ethical places. With each piece she sold, she explained to the buyer what each type of stone or gem in the piece was and where it came from. 

Other exhibits were gems in a metaphorical sense. Carissa Wassenaar, a full-time instructor with Go Dance Ballroom Studio, had set up a miniature dance floor and was eager to teach a move or three to expo attendees. 

Lin Stepp and her husband, J.L., sit in their booth, ready to sell books and sign autographs. Photo by Jenna Stambaugh.

Wassenaar said she’s been working on ballroom dancing for about two years but has been dancing her whole life. 

“Ballroom was one of the last things I had tapped into,” she said. “There happened to be a job opening at the studio, and I fell in love with it. The owner is a triple crown champion and it’s a family-owned business — working there is like becoming a part of the family. I love all that we get to do for our students in that atmosphere. We’re teaching dance, but we are also helping them with whatever their goals are.” 

Another one-of-a-kind booth was being operated by bestselling author  Lin Stepp and her husband, J.L. Stepp. 

Stepp explained that, before the pandemic hit, she would often do book signings at Barnes & Noble as well as independent bookstores but since the appearance of COVID those opportunities for promotion are far less frequent. “I started doing festivals and also speaking engagements looking for ways to get out and interact with the public,” she said. 

The couple first entered the publishing world by writing  guidebooks on hiking. Stepp explained that, as book lovers who also loved to explore national parks, the couple was disappointed by the lack of contemporary books using the wilderness areas as backdrops. 

“I couldn’t find any novels set in today’s time,” she said. “All the novels written about the Smoky Mountains were set in the past… settlers and old-time stories, and I kept asking around for contemporary fiction. One of the booksellers said, ‘Ma’am, this is one of the most visited national parks in the country and I’ve got nothing. People ask for what you’re asking for all the time. I wish someone would write some.’ 

“That really sank in the idea that I should write what I’ve been looking for and what I would like to read, so off I went.”  

Stepp’s books have been listed on the bestseller lists of the New York Times, USA Today, Publisher’s Weekly and Amazon Weekly. “I’ve been really blessed,” she said. 

The interests of Jennifer Daltaire, owner of Its Not Ewe Goods, were more along the lines of marketing the experience of life in rural Appalachia through goat’s milk soap. Daltaire also offered sample-sized bars of all the varieties of soap that she sells to expo attendees. 

Its Not Ewe Goods booth shows photos of the goats whose milk goes into their soaps along with their wide selection of scents. Photo by Jenna Stambaugh.

“I have six goats on our property located near Strawberry Plains,” she explained. “We sell online, mostly on Etsy. This is our first convention.”

 According to Daltaire, it only takes a couple of hours to make the soap but several weeks to cure it properly and make sure that all the oils are at the right levels so they don’t hurt skin. She adds the goat’s milk towards the end of the process so it’s fresh when the soap is sold.  

Also at the expo for the first time was Baklawaya, a home-based business selling the ever-popular Mediterranean dessert baklava. 

The business owner, Heba, said she’s been making the confections since she was a teen but didn’t try to make a living with it until a couple of months ago. For the time being, she’s selling her product online at https://www.baklawaya.com/ but she hopes to open a shop soon. 

“We are making it from scratch,” she explained, “The dough, we open it and stretch in 12 layers stuffed full of pistachio and syrup. We make different varieties as well, like one with Kashta cream on it and one without nuts for people with allergies.” 

Heba said her family (which also includes her husband and two small children) hails originally from Iraq but has been in the United States for five years now. “We love our new home country and all the opportunities it affords to our young family. We are hoping to introduce everyone here to baklava and that they enjoy it as we do back home,” she said. 

Heba and her husband stand next to the business logo they designed for Heba’s new in-home business selling baklava. Photo by Jenna Stambaugh.

The expo wasn’t all about buying and selling goods, however — plenty of groups who work on women’s issues were passing along information about the many services available to women locally.

The Sexual Assault Crisis Center, for instance, gave away items such as stress balls and journals with the center’s phone number printed on each of them. 

Brittany Thompson, the center’s services coordinator, explained they do this intentionally so that people will be aware of the services they provide and will hopefully have their number on hand if they’re ever in need of services. Thompson said they try to be present at as many community events as possible and use every opportunity to inform the public about what they do including forensic nurse exams, victims’ advocacy, therapy and education/outreach. 

Thompson said all services are provided free of charge to residents of Knox and its surrounding 13 counties. Advocates and nurses will travel to meet with victims in surrounding counties, and they’ll also willing to meet victims at safe places such as justice centers or libraries. The agency also provides free transportation through Uber to remove barriers to services. 

The SACC’s 24-hour crisis line is 865-522-7273 .

The expo was organized by Touch the Sky Events, which is owned by Shannon Wright. Repeated phone calls to Wright requesting comment on the expo weren’t returned. 

According to Touch the Sky’s website: “We are a faith-based business dedicated to promoting and coordinating quality events for families in the community to enjoy. We strive to promote events that are uplifting and positive to keep a lasting impression on everyone who attends. We give God the honor and glory through all of the events we coordinate. The proceeds from all of the events support two ministries, Resurrected Marriages & Surrender Ministries for Women, to keep the mentoring sessions free of charge for anyone who is struggling with addictions, abuse, adultery, self-mutilation, abandonment, and depression.”

Jennifer Stambaugh can be reached at news@hardknoxwire.com 

Published on June 8, 2021