As a detective for the Commonwealth’s Attorney Office, Lee Ann Hardin would pick up prisoners from around the country to bring them back to face charges in Kentucky.
It was in those one-on-one spaces that God spoke to her.
“I would spend several hours either on a plane or in a car transporting them,” said Lee Ann, 52. “That’s where I got to hear their stories. I found that a common theme among the prisoners was that there was no place to transition to when they got out to truly help them transform. They just got right back into the same situation, and it was like setting them up for failure. That’s when God really started working on me and showing me that there was a need. I began to see these men and women through different eyes.”
Lee Ann started sharing the Gospel with fugitives, who had no choice but to listen.
“I started talking to these men and women about Jesus. They were like my in-captive audience,” she added.
Lee Ann retired from the Louisville Metro Police Dept. in 2011 after 20 years of service. In 2013, she married Rich Hardin, a fellow LMPD veteran who trained dogs for the Navy SEALS canine program.
“God was already working on us in different areas with our unique experiences and developing skill sets before bringing all of the pieces together,” she said.
Rich, who is known as the “dog whisperer,” began a dog-training business called Double H Canine Training Academy in Louisville.
“Dogs are the great conversation starter,” Rich said.
“When people are sitting and talking, if they’re just touching that dog, it seems to loosen people up. I had cancer last year, and as soon as everybody knew I was a dog trainer, it dominated the conversation. Nobody even cared I had cancer. It’s the great ice breaker. It’s that common ground. It brings people together from all over the world. It’s a dog and people love them.”
In 2016, the Hardins dreamed up Freedom Farm Ministry, a nonprofit designed to help women recovering from addictions by training rescue dogs for disabled veterans, children and first responders.
“The biggest piece of the puzzle—what I always loved about Lee Ann’s original vision—is that we want the women training those dogs to give that dog to someone else so that they can see something bigger than themselves,” Rich said. “They did this work, and they can give it to someone in need.”
Buying a service dog can be a financial burden.
“We had known people that were looking for service dogs and had to fund raise,” Lee Ann said. “We heard all these stories about how hard it was for them because not only did they have a child with special needs, but they were having to raise some $25,000 for a service dog.”
A few years ago, Lee Ann met Tammy Johnson through Southeast’s Sports & Fitness running team. Johnson’s son, Kyle, was seriously injured while serving in the military and had an American bulldog named Brutus.
“Kyle was going into care for his traumatic brain injury for a few months,” Johnson said. “I commented to Lee Ann that I was trying to find someone to take Brutus. He dearly loves Brutus, but he had never been formerly trained to be a service dog. Lee Ann and Rich offered to take Brutus and train him. They did that free of charge.”
Through Freedom Farm, the Hardins put Kyle in an apartment close to the kennel after his treatment finished until Brutus completed his training.
“Kyle has a back injury. If Kyle is walking down the stairs, Brutus is trained to walk in front of him and catch him if he was to fall,” Johnson added. “He is super in tune with Kyle and how he is feeling. That’s how the Lord does things. He doesn’t just answer your prayers, He knocks your socks off.”
The Hardins have six dogs of their own and train about 50 dogs a month at Double H.
“The dogs can retrieve keys or pick up something for people in a wheelchair, can help stabilize them when they’re getting in and out of a chair or using the restroom,” Lee Ann said. “Those are different things we’ve been asked for the dogs to perform.”
Freedom Farm to Freedom Lake
The Hardins were able to train and provide several service dogs to people through Freedom Farm Ministry, but they still struggled with figuring out logistics and finding enough funding.
They thought about ending Freedom Farm, but the Holy Spirit kept prodding Lee Ann to reach out to Kim Cash after seeing her husband, Tony, baptizing former prisoners every weekend at Southeast’s Blankenbaker Campus.
She messaged Kim on Facebook. The Cashes were already talking about having a place for former inmates to live and to train rescue dogs because Tony saw this work successfully in prison.
While the two couples met together—sharing their stories and ministry visions—they quickly realized how strikingly similar they were.
“We had talked about partnering with their vision, but God put it on my heart that we weren’t supposed to partner, we were supposed to give it,” Lee Ann said. “What I heard loud and clear was, ‘It was never yours to begin with.’ He wanted us to get it going, carry it so far and to give it up. It was never our ministry. It’s landed where it’s supposed to land. We’re not washing our hands of it; we want to come alongside them and serve in any way that we can.”
In May 2020, the Hardins transferred their nonprofit ministry to the Cashes, and they changed the name to Freedom Lake. The Cashes plan to purchase property for Freedom Lake, and the Hardins will find dogs with the right temperament and help the men living at Freedom Lake train the dogs for people in need.
Only God could unite ex-cops and ex-cons through man’s best friend.
“The whole idea behind the Cashes’ ministry is that they don’t have a halfway house; they have an all-the-way house,” Rich said. “When you change the behavior of dogs, people are learning to change their behavior with Jesus.”
In the late 1990s, former LMPD Major Bill Weedman, and current Indiana Campus support pastor, invited Lee Ann and her family of four to Southeast.
Everything looked good on paper—attending church regularly for a couple of decades— but her life as a “fake Christian” finally caught up with her.
“I always thought I lived as a Christian, but I was really a fake Christian,” Lee Ann said. “I think it all finally caught up with me and turned my life upside down. That’s what it took for God to get a hold of me.”
In 2007, 14 years into her first marriage, Lee Ann had an affair.
“I was one of those women that had something to say about those who were stepping out of their marriages,” Lee Ann added. “God had been trying to get a hold of me the whole time. I was so screwed up. I was reading the Bible and skipped over anything talking about adultery. I didn’t want to hear it.”
Lee Ann and her husband divorced, and she later married the man she was having an affair with. That marriage lasted a few months.
She was living in a “nightmare,” but it woke her up to her need for God, and she started seeking Him.
“I literally got on my knees and told God, ‘I’m done with myself,’” she said. “I completely surrendered at that point. I looked for ways to serve.”
In February 2013, Lee Ann went on a missions trip to Jamaica with Weedman and a team to serve with Life in Abundance. The first day, team members were asked to share their testimonies.
“I’m about to have a heart attack that I’m going to have to do this,” she said. “If I had known that, I wouldn’t have gone. That would have been a deal breaker.”
Lee Ann didn’t want to share her secret past, but she ended up letting it all go and finally found freedom in Christ.
“I just let all that dirt go. I couldn’t shut up. I couldn’t stop telling my dirt. I was just telling it all, and that’s what I needed,” Lee Ann added. “God needed to rid me of that because it was weighing on me. I was still worried about being found out even though I changed. I didn’t want anyone to know that about me … God was allowing me to transition again. He was transforming my life from being a believer to a follower.”
When Lee Ann returned home, she asked for forgiveness from her ex-husband, children and mother.
Shame is no longer a part of her story. In fact, the grace she experienced from God because of her adultery is the reason she can relate to those struggling in addiction.