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Billy Ray Harris' story has inspired a windfall of donations.
By TODAY
updated 3/5/2013 9:47:59 AM ET 2013-03-05T14:47:59

When Kansas City homeless man Billy Ray Harris returned Sarah Darling’s engagement ring last month after she accidentally dropped it in his cup, it could have been the end of the story.

Instead, the experience has changed his life.

In the weeks since his good deed went viral, Harris has gained national attention, and supporters have raised over $175,000 for him to find a new home.

Something even more valuable happened: Harris is back in touch with his family, from whom he was estranged for the last 16 years.

Amid the media storm around the engagement ring episode, Robin Harris, Billy Ray’s younger sister, happened to come across an article about her brother, and reached out to the local news station that first reported the story for help tracking him down.

"When I turned my head, I recognized the name, and I turned back around and I looked at the picture again, and it was my brother," Robin told TODAY.com. "I called and I said, 'that's my brother. I've been looking for him for 16 years.'"

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Robin, who still lives in Texas where the family grew up, said she made repeated efforts to find her brother over the years, but had heard varying reports about his whereabouts, and was even once told that he had died.

Courtesy of Robin Harris
Billy Ray Harris, pictured in his younger days in this photo from his sister, had been estranged from his family for the last 16 years.

When she was finally able to connect with him on the phone last month, the siblings had a long and emotional conversation to catch up on the last decade and a half.

“It was nice. I was crying,” she said. “I was happy to hear from my brother. I told him I just couldn't believe he stayed homeless for so long when he knew he could come back. I would always give my brother a place to stay.”

The two now talk on the phone almost daily, and Robin has helped him get back in touch with their three other siblings, as well as his numerous nieces and nephews — some of whom he didn’t even know existed.

“It felt great,” Harris told TODAY.com of what it was like to hear his sister’s voice on the other end of the line. “I hadn't talked to her in so many years. I was totally excited and surprised.”

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He says he never stopped thinking about his family, though he had assumed he wouldn’t see them again. “I'd been worried sick about my family since the last time I saw them,” he said. “I totally lost contact with them back in the 90's…I was kind of down in the dumps, and on the verge of giving up.”

Billy Ray gained national attention when he returned Sarah Darling's engagement ring, after she accidentally dropped it in his cup.

Now doing some work as a roadie for a local jazz band, Harris is no longer sleeping on the street. He’s been staying in the basement of one of the band members, and is getting his identification documents straightened out so that he can open a bank account to access the donations people have raised for him. He hopes to use the funds to buy an apartment and fly back to Texas to see his family.

“We're thinking about having a family reunion in July, so definitely then, but I intend to be there before that,” he said.

Robin can’t wait to see her brother, and hopes he’ll consider moving in with her. “I just want him to come home,” she said. “He told me he would, but he didn't want to be a burden on me. He didn't want to come if he couldn't help me.”

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As for the woman whose ring he returned, Darling says she and her husband Bill Krejci have become close to Harris, and hope to stay in touch with him in the long run. Krejci, who launched the donations page for Harris, regularly has dinner with him and has been helping him navigate the paperwork to get his life back in order.

“If he goes back to Texas it will be harder, but I would like to stay in contact every once in a while and check in with him,” Darling told TODAY.com.

While all the attention has been a little exhausting, Harris says he’s excited about what the future holds, and thankful the experience has led him back to his siblings.

“That's the main thing,” he said. “To me, that's the best thing to come out of this whole deal.”

Video: Homeless man returns engagement ring dropped in his cup

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