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Georgia's Vidalia onion industry is responding to the brutal murder of a 15-year-old Toombs County girl who was vacationing with her family in Florida earlier this summer. The Courtney Wilkes Memorial Agriculture & Veterinary Scholarship will be granted annually to a qualifying senior graduating from high school within the Vidalia onion-growing region. Donations are being accepted with the hope that a thousand-dollar scholarship can be awarded for a minimum of 10 years.

Ms. Wilkes was a rising junior at Toombs County High School and the top student in her class academically. She was an officer in the Future Farmers of America, a star soccer player and a devout Christian. The young outdoor enthusiast has been described by many who knew her as infectiously cheerful, offering everyone around her a bright smile and silly jokes. She loved animals and aspired to be a veterinarian.

Starting in the spring of 2012, the scholarship will be granted once a year to a student possessing characteristics and interests similar to those of the bright, likeable young girl. Among other prerequisites, applicants must be enrolled in a four-year college on an agriculture or veterinary track.

The Vidalia community remains devastated by the June murder that occurred at Seagrove Beach outside Seaside, FL. A 21-year-old area man alleging he was younger befriended the teen and her family. When the young woman failed to return from a walk with the man at an agreed time, her parents reported Ms. Wilkes missing. Shortly thereafter, she was found strangled and severely beaten in a wooded area off a nature trail. The Walton County Sheriff, after apprehending the suspect, commended the parents for responsibly supervising the youngsters. They had only permitted the oldest child, two weeks shy of her 16th birthday, to walk along the beach with the man the last afternoon of the family's stay. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for first-degree, premeditated murder and other serious charges.

The Wilkes family, a close member of whom has long worked in and been a vital contributor to the Vidalia industry, is highly respected by the Vidalia area. Following a shocking situation that will be an ongoing source of sadness for the victim's family and friends, the farmers would like the scholarship to be a positive tribute to the friendly, joyful young woman filled with a zest for life. It is their hope that applicants be imbued with Ms. Wilkes' strong morals, quirky and fun humor, intelligence, commitment to learning, and respectful appreciation of nature and animals.

Those wishing to contribute at any time to the Courtney Wilkes Memorial Agriculture & Veterinary Scholarship should make out their tax-deductible contributions specifically to GVF Foundation, Courtney Wilkes Scholarship. Checks should be mailed to Courtney Wilkes Scholarship, C/O Vidalia Onion Business Council, P.O. Box 2611, Vidalia, GA, 30475. Questions can be directed to Bob Stafford at the Vidalia Onion Business Council.