My Experience Volunteering with the Free Library

By Marjorie S. RSS Wed, December 20, 2023

December includes International Volunteer Day — which takes place on December 5th — but here at the Free Library, we celebrate our volunteers all year round! Many of the programs offered by Languages and Learning are facilitated by our incredibly dedicated volunteers. Margie Scharf runs one of our weekly English Conversation Groups and happily shared some of her experiences with English language learners at the Free Library.

Philadelphia newcomers from the four corners of the world converge at the Free Library’s Philadelphia City Institute branch every Tuesday at noon. For 90 minutes, 10–12 adults meet to improve their English language skills by learning about each other and the ways of their new hometown, Philadelphia. As their group leader, my job is simple: plan and launch the discussion and then get out of the way.

Through interactive small and full group discussions, participants improve their skills and comfort in speaking English as they compare notes and offer each other advice regarding how to acclimate to navigate the city. The class identifies topics of interest; for example, the November elections were an opportunity to discuss how the American system of government works. And exactly who are the Eagles?

While new vocabulary words are introduced every session, the main purpose of the English Conversation Group is to help English learners build their confidence through opportunities to practice listening, speaking, and understanding English in a safe space. Everyone has an opportunity to speak, ask questions, and seek clarification when new context or words are confusing. Together, we have built a community of English language learners and friends based on respect and support for one another.

A highlight this fall was a guided tour of the library’s Parkway Central Branch. Each department librarian enthusiastically greeted us. Everyone, including me, was wowed by the vast array of the Free Library’s offerings. The group was excited to learn of the vast resources available through the library beyond books, with participants talking among themselves regarding their plans to return to borrow an instrument, take a sewing class, research career options, obtain assistance in writing a resume, and attend a concert or author talk.

While I left each session inspired by the determination and enthusiasm of participants, two sessions stood out. For Thanksgiving, each of us brought a special food from our home country to share. Before sitting down to our meal, each participant introduced the food they brought and discussed its cultural import. Our luncheon included Russian sandwiches, Japanese gyoza and onigiri, Turkish spinach and rose pastry (Ispanakli Gul Boregi), and Chinese plum candies. Another session was devoted to sharing participants' culture through meaningful objects. Each student brought something that conveyed an aspect of their culture, religion, or family tradition. Feeling heard and known was as important to the group as the increased fluency and comfort in speaking English the process afforded.


spinach and rose pastryrussian sandwiches


onigirikisir dish


Into the new year, I carry the gift of experiencing the increased confidence of my class in expressing themselves in their new language and becoming part of a learning community. I look forward to continuing to facilitate the in-person English Conversation group in 2024. Thank you Free Library of Philadelphia for the opportunity to build this community of learners!

Are you interested in learning more about volunteering at the Free Library? Find out more about current opportunities and how to apply with Volunteer Services. For more information on English conversation groups at the library, visit the Adult Education and Language Learning Programs list, email us at, or call 215-686-8664.

Marjorie Scharf enjoyed a long career in public health before becoming a CELTA-Certified ELL Teacher. She has been teaching in community-based settings in Philadelphia for the past six years.

Have a question for Free Library staff? Please submit it to our Ask a Librarian page and receive a response within two business days.

Leave this field empty

Add a Comment to My Experience Volunteering with the Free Library

Email is kept private and will not be displayed publicly
Comment must be less than 3000 characters