published Monday, April 28th, 2014

'Jessie' star Debby Ryan a hit with teens at Chattanooga Kidz Expo

Dixie Pickett, 6, brushes the teeth of a stuffed donkey at the Pediatric Dentistry of Cleveland and Ooltewah booth at the Kidz Expo. Workers at the booth handed kids supplies for  taking care of their teeth.
Dixie Pickett, 6, brushes the teeth of a stuffed donkey at the Pediatric Dentistry of Cleveland and Ooltewah booth at the Kidz Expo. Workers at the booth handed kids supplies for taking care of their teeth.
Photo by Erin O. Smith.
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    Disney's Debby Ryan poses for a portrait after her performance at the Kidz Expo at the Chattanooga Convention Center on Sunday. Ryan stars in the Disney show "Jessie" and is a former actress in the"Suite Life on Deck."
    Photo by Erin O. Smith.
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    Kairi Pass, 2, pokes her head out of a bunk bed at the Barnbeds of Chattanooga booth at the Kidz Expo. The owners of Barnbeds said they are using the funds they get from selling bunk beds to adopt another child.
    Photo by Erin O. Smith.
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    Taylor McCormick, 3, looks at stickers while her mom fills out a information sheet at the Kidz Expo.
    Photo by Erin O. Smith.
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    Josia Arroya, 8, and Zada Thurman, 9, wait to be told they can go through an obstacle course at the Kidz Expo, sponsored by the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
    Photo by Erin O. Smith.
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Between the pictures and giggling, it appeared to be just a few average girls having a good time in the hall of the Chattanooga Convention Center on Sunday at the third annual Kidz Expo sponsored by the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Except within the circle stood celebrity actor, singer and songwriter Debby Ryan, star of the DisneyChannel's "Jessie."

Laughing and talking, the group continued for a few minutes until one teen changed the subject and told how much Ryan inspires her in overcoming life's challenges.

For Ryan, who is up to her eyeballs in ambition at age 20, it's those sorts of moments that make a long day of meeting, greeting and posing for pictures with young fans worth it.

"If it weren't for the people who made me smile and if it weren't for the people who looked me in the eyes and told me how much I mean to them, then I wouldn't be able to do what I do," Ryan said. "I think it's really important that I come here and do this. It can be emotionally overwhelming but in the best way."

A line of people waiting to meet Ryan began forming before 7 a.m. and weaved around the convention center until just after 3 p.m., all waiting to spend just a moment of time with the former "Suite Life on Deck" actress who is releasing her debut album, "One," in June.

"It's very carnival feeling and blues rock and indie," Ryan said of the album. "People are like, 'huh, I don't actually know how to describe this.' To me, it's what happens when these five or six people who have similar hearts but are fundamentally different come together."

The annual Kidz Expo is sponsored by the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Children's Hospital at Erlanger, Comcast and McDonald's. Proceeds benefit the Ronald McDonald House Charities and the Chattanooga Times Free Press Foundation.

Even without a celebrity in the house, there would have been plenty of activities for the crowd of close to 10,000 that gathered for the expo.

More than 100 vendor booths with giveaways, games and shopping filled the premises. Live performers and costume-clad characters, including "Star Wars" figures, made appearances throughout the day.

"I don't think moving it from Saturday to Sunday hurt anything," said Art Holekamp, a local McDonald's owner who worked a tent at the event. "It's a good opportunity to reach our customer base that is very loyal to us. And some of the ones who have had the most fun [are] the moms and dads."

Still, the biggest grins of the day came when beaming children took the stage to meet Ryan. And from the group of young girls who gained the privilege of chatting with her privately afterward.

"They asked if we could hang out," Ryan said. "And I said yes."

Contact staff writer David Cobb at 423-757-6731 or dcobb@timesfreepress.com.

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