The first Camp Kesem project was founded at Stanford University in 2000 as a project of Hillel at Stanford, a nonprofit serving Jewish students at the University. The project was developed by founder Iris Rave, and a group of student leaders who sought to create a magical summer camp experience for children in need.

After assessing the needs of the community, the students found that children who have, or have had, a parent with cancer comprised an under-served population who could benefit from a summer camp experience with peers who faced similar challenges.

The Camp Kesem project at Stanford hosted its first summer session in June 2001, free of charge to 37 campers. Since then, the project has continued and has grown each year to engage more student volunteers and serve more children across the country.

Based on the success of Camp Kesem at Stanford, Iris Rave founded Camp Kesem National in August 2002 to share the project's model with college campuses across the nation.