Alumni Spotlight

‘Caring’ Without a Cost

Three-time OU alumna co-founds nonprofit to offer free and affordable therapy to those in need

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Diane Johnston continues her journey of helping others by co-founding a nonprofit to offer low-to-no-cost counseling services to individuals in need. (Photo Credit: James Silvestri)

icon of a calendarMay 26, 2022

icon of a pencilBy Trevor Tyle

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Diane Johnston has always had a passion for helping people. 

Much of her career has been devoted to serving her community in various industries, ranging from finance to health care. But it wasn’t until she dipped her toes into counseling that she found her true calling. 

Johnston is a three-time Oakland University graduate. After graduating from Walsh College with a bachelor’s degree in finance, the Rochester native eventually found her way to OU, where she earned two master’s degrees — one in public administration with a focus on health care administration and management, and more recently, one in mental health counseling — and a post-master’s graduate certificate in human resource management. During that time, she also worked as the administrative assistant for the Department of Counseling for nine years, which ultimately inspired her to pursue a career as a psychotherapist. 

“[I wanted] to help others [with their] life issues,” Johnston said. “[OU’s] counseling program is CACREP-accredited and prepares us with very good technical resources and practice.” 

In the final months of her counseling degree, Johnston also served as a counseling intern for the South Oakland Shelter in Lathrup Village and the Neighborhood Service Organization in Detroit, which serve individuals impacted by homelessness and intellectual impairments, respectively. She has continued to volunteer for both organizations since obtaining her master’s degree, as well as a multitude of other non-profits, including the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and Meals on Wheels.

Johnston currently works as a psychotherapist in private practice. She still maintains her connection to OU, teaching yoga that combines mental health with movement and mindfulness at the Recreation Center on campus.

Most recently, though, Johnston took on the role of vice president of Thaar Care Foundation, a nonprofit that she co-founded with OU counseling alumna Patricia Thaar-Tocco in 2019.

“When we were working after school, we noticed that so many people cannot afford counseling due to high copays, high out-of-pocket cost and more,” Johnston said. “We believe in providing quality care for everyone, not based on financial means.”

Since its inception three years ago, the Thaar Care Foundation’s clientele has increased 200%. In spite of its growing number of patients, the Thaar Care Foundation staff has remained committed to ensuring it is able to continue offering low-to-no-cost counseling services to individuals in need by relying on fundraisers, private donors and community involvement.

Additionally, the Thaar Care Foundation regularly partners with other local nonprofits to provide services to additional clients who otherwise would not have access to therapy. Previous collaborations have included the Oakland County Suicide Prevention Task Force and the Trauma Recovery Network, the latter of which offered free eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy to Oxford Schools following the Oxford High School shooting earlier this year. 

“Our goal is to increase awareness by putting ourselves out in the community, working with kids and teens, bringing funding to current needs and reducing suicide death, and making mental health affordable for whoever needs care,” Johnston said. 

The Thaar Care Foundation’s staff is made up entirely of OU alumni — in addition to Johnston and Thaar-Tocco, recent graduates Jessica Collado (’19) and Melissa Porembiak (’21) make up the other half of the nonprofit’s personnel, with each individual specializing in a specific area of counseling. Johnston focuses on sexual assault and life transitioning; Collado specializes in domestic violence, sexual assault and addiction; and Thaar-Tocco has background in transgender, couples’ and relationship counseling. Porembiak, who has five years of experience in ABA therapy, works with the nonprofit’s largest clientele — children and teenagers. 

Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that 37% of high school students experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, while 44% reported enduring feelings of sadness or hopefulness. According to Johnston, those numbers line up with what she has seen in many of the Thaar Care Foundation’s teenage patients. 75% of the people served by the nonprofit are teenagers, with 25% of those clients suffering from self-harm or suicidal thoughts. Many of these teenagers, especially girls, are coping with issues that stemmed from feelings of isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

One of the causes Johnston is most passionate about is destigmatizing mental health, and in spite of this data, she is inspired by the willingness of today’s youth to seek help, which she said gives her hope for the future. 

“Since COVID, we have seen an influx of teens and young adults coming to counseling,” she said. “It is no big deal for them. I think that the next generation will embrace mental health more than past generations. They have a lot to deal with and going to therapy is a natural part of their health care.” 

For additional information on the counseling programs available at OU, visit

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