There were rumors that he was dead, but former homeless man Billy Ray Harris, 55, showed his family he was very much alive and thrilled to see them in a reunion Sunday on TODAY.
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"I never would've thought this," Harris said as his family gathered around him. "This was a total shock."
Harris hadn't seen his family in 16 years, but his sister recognized him after his story of returning an engagement ring went viral earlier in March. Harris, who had been holding out his cup on the street for donations in Kansas City, Mo., didn't know that passersby Sarah Darling had accidentally dropped her engagement ring in his cup until he packed up for the day.
After discovering the ring, Billy Ray took it to a local jeweler, who offered him $4,000 on the spot. He considered taking the money but held onto the ring and waited for Darling to return. A couple days later, she did.
The story hit headlines across the globe and Harris was soon back in touch with his family. They had planned a family reunion for the summer, but TODAY didn't want them to have to wait that long.
"It means the world," said Harris' sister, Robin Harris Williams, of having her big brother back in her life.
She was the first to get in touch, after seeing his face in the news. "I knew it was my brother as soon as I saw the picture, and automatically I just started yelling," Williams said. She lived 490 miles away, in Texas, but eventually tracked him down and called to alert the rest of the family. The rest of the family joined in on the reunion, including brother Edwin Harris and sisters Elsie “EJ” Johnson and Nellie E. Vaughn.
Vaughn told TODAY's Erica Hill that she knew her sister had been looking for him all this time.
"It's good, It's really good news," Vaughn said.
Harris said 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 told TODAY.com. “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.”
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. In addition, they set up a donation fund to help Harris.
"I was hoping for $4,000, because that's what he was offered," Darling said of the fundraising goals, which was set up after an overwhelming response from strangers asked how they could help. The money poured in, with over 8,000 people donating more than $183,000 so far.
Harris now has a part-time job, new friends and a warm bed. "I got an air mattress now, it's like living like a king compared to where I was," Harris told TODAY.
And there's more — Harris has nieces and nephews waiting to meet him.
"Got it all right here now," Harris said, as he sat with his arm around his little sister.
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