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May 2024
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Finding Joy After Tragedy

By Mariam Jehangir

Jay Fagnano and his wife, Mary, with a young baseball fan from the Remar Orphanage in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

When Jay Fagnano delivered his Ice Breaker at the Glumac DTLA club in Los Angeles, it made people cry. The speech, entitled “I Wish I Wasn’t Standing Here,” told the story of his son’s death.

Nick Fagnano was 20 years old when he was tragically killed by a rare lightning strike at Los Angeles’ Venice Beach in 2014. He left behind two heartbroken parents and a devastated community. While losing a child is perhaps the most difficult experience a parent could go through, the Fagnanos managed to not only continue on with life, but also honor their son in a way that enriches the lives of so many others.

The Thrive in Joy Nick Fagnano Foundation was started after the couple visited the Dominican Republic on a charity project. On the way back, the Fagnanos decided there was much work to be done in serving children both abroad and in their home city of Los Angeles, and they formed a foundation in their son’s name. Jay shares their story below.

What does your foundation support?

The Thrive in Joy Nick Fagnano Foundation is an active participant in Vision Trust, which helps vulnerable children in 17 countries including the Dominican Republic. We continue our work of rebuilding and improving conditions at the Remar Orphanage and Tia Tatiana school, both of which serve children in one of the poorest cities in the Dominican Republic.

An annual scholarship is awarded by our foundation to a student transferring from a community college to the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California, where Nick was two weeks away from starting as a transfer student. Thrive in Joy also awards character-based scholarships to exemplary students at Nick’s former elementary and high schools

Finally, we help high school students develop into community leaders.

Jay, Mary and Nick in Maui, Hawaii.

Tell us about your Toastmasters experience.

Joining the Glumac DTLA Toastmasters club in July of 2015 was one of the best decisions I made after losing Nick. I had been asked to speak a couple of times about our experience and felt a great desire to get better at it. I discovered the club and was instantly hooked.

Toastmasters allowed me to work through some of my grief through the speeches I gave. I opened myself up to some very raw emotions and the group allowed me to go places with my sorrow that I hadn’t been able to express before. Writing and giving speeches was part of my “grief therapy.”

What was the speech you gave at the University of California, Merced?

My experiences in Toastmasters played a vital role in the speech I gave at the Catholic Newman Club at UC Merced. I have a strong Catholic faith and was able to address these young students and talk about what my wife and I had done up to that point to honor Nick’s life. I drew upon what I had learned by giving speeches in my club. I have since spoken at a breakfast meeting to the Fresno Chapter of the Catholic Professional & Business Club, and also recently gave the eulogy for one of my best college friends. I believe Toastmasters was the vehicle that allowed me to give a talk that helped many others deal with his untimely death.

Can you explain the meaning ¬≠behind the name “Thrive in Joy”?

Coming up with the name was easy. We discovered a document on Nick’s computer titled “The Reality of Heaven,” in which he wrote about different religions’ views of the afterlife. In the conclusion, he wrote, “The afterlife that I want to be a part of involves joy, excitement and gratitude as we will finally be reunited with the loved ones that we have lost on earth. Perhaps ‘Rest in Peace’ is actually not the best term in relation to death, rather a phrase such as ‘Thrive in Joy’ best represents how I will want to spend eternity.”


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